The U.S. government has suddenly stopped force-feeding a group of men on a hunger strike inside an El Paso immigration detention center, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.
The dramatic reversal came Feb. 14 as public pressure was mounting on ICE to halt the practice, which involves feeding detainees through nasal tubes against their will. Last week, the United Nations human rights office said the force-feeding of Indian hunger strikers at the facility could violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
On Feb. 13, a U.S. district judge said the government had to stop force-feeding two of the detained Indian immigrants, but warned that if their health started to decline he would consider ordering force-feeding again, their attorney said. On Feb. 14, all force-feeding at the detention center near the El Paso airport had stopped, according to ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa.
“This is a win for us,” said Louis Lopez, who is representing Malkeet Singh and Jasvir Singh in the case heard Feb. 13 in El Paso. Both men are Punjabi Sikhs in their early 20s. “They have a First Amendment right to protest.”
Detained immigrants have sporadically staged hunger strikes around the country for years, protesting conditions they face while seeking asylum. ICE said there are currently 12 detainees refusing food, nine from India, three from Cuba. Force-feeding, which began under court order earlier this year, has not previously been reported, and advocates involved said they weren’t aware it had happened before. (See earlier India-West story here: https://bit.ly/2ToKluB)
In a federal courtroom Feb. 13 in El Paso, U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama heard from Dr. Michelle Iglesias about how men detained in the El Paso facility are restrained and have feeding tubes pushed through their noses. The judge asked specifically whether they had some other way they could protest, and sought details about the Singhs’ physical condition.
“What are the physiological and psychological effects of allowing a hunger strike to continue unabated by force-feeding?” he asked.
In addition to Guaderrama, U.S. District Judges David Briones, Philip R. Martinez and Frank Montalvo at the El Paso courthouse have issued orders for force-feeding in recent weeks.
Supporters of the hunger strikers in El Paso from the nonprofit Strengthening South Asian Communities in America planned a protest Feb. 15 in El Paso on behalf of detainees.
Those orders are secret, under seal, because they contain “highly sensitive and personal medical information,” Montalvo told The Associated Press in a letter declining a request to unseal the orders.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said last week the office views force-feeding as potential “ill treatment” that would go against the convention, ratified by the United States in 1994.
The statement by the Geneva-based office echoed concerns raised by 14 Democratic lawmakers who have asked ICE for more information.
Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who toured the El Paso Processing Center and met with the hunger strikers two weeks ago, found them “deeply traumatized” and frail. She said she asked them why they were refusing food.
“It was so sad,” she said. “They told me ‘We would rather die in America than be deported.’”
India-West Staff Reporter adds:
SALDEF, a national civil rights, advocacy, and educational organization who mission is to empower Sikh Americans by building dialogue, deepening understanding, promoting civic and political participation, said it was part of the coalition of civil rights groups that had planned the Feb. 15 rally outside the El Paso Processing Center to bring attention to this issue.
According to a statement by Indian American communications director for SALDEF Gujari Singh, “It is imperative that the Department of Homeland Security immediately release the individuals engaged in these hunger strikes to ensure their well-being, safety, and protection of their due process rights.”