Nearly 50 Democratic lawmakers called for a watchdog investigation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Feb. 19 after the agency confirmed it had been force-feeding immigrant detainees on a hunger strike.
Reporting by The Associated Press revealed late last month that nine Indian men who were refusing food at a Texas detention facility were being force-fed through nasal tubes against their will.
On Feb. 21, all force-feeding at the detention center near the El Paso airport abruptly stopped after a U.S. district judge said the government had to stop involuntarily feeding two of the detained immigrants.
The 49 lawmakers are calling for the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General to investigate on-site conditions of ICE facilities and the policies surrounding the involuntary force-feeding of immigrant detainees. Earlier this month, the Geneva-based United National human rights office said that the United States could be violating the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
“We implore you to exercise your oversight responsibilities to make improving conditions at immigration detention facilities a top priority for ICE and ensure the humane treatment of detainees in federal custody,” said the letter spearheaded by Oregon Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who toured the El Paso Processing Center and met with the men after the initial reports of the force-feeding. “These complaints reveal unequivocal abuses of power that violate the rights of detainees.”
ICE declined to comment directly on the request for an investigation Feb. 19 but said the agency has “a strict zero-tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities.”
“For their health and safety, ICE closely monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike,” the agency said in a statement. “ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.”
Detained immigrants have sporadically staged hunger strikes around the country for years, protesting conditions they face while seeking asylum.
ICE said that 13 immigrants from Cuba, India, Mexico and Nigeria held in detention facilities nationwide were refusing food, but none were being force-fed. That included 10 detainees at the El Paso Processing Center, one at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, one at the Krome Service Processing Center in Florida, and one at the Central Arizona Correctional Center.
India-West adds: In related news, South Asian Americans Leading Together held a protest Feb. 15 in front of the El Paso ICE detention center to “bring immediate attention to the abuse the Sikh asylum seekers are suffering at the hands of ICE agents.” (See earlier India-West story here: https://bit.ly/2U49IC9)
The organization had earlier in the month written to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to protest the force-feeding of asylum seekers. Six of the nine Sikhs have been force-fed since January. Nine of the hunger strikers into solitary confinement for refusing to be force-fed while standing up, according to SAALT’s letter to Nielsen. Four were threatened with immediate deportation.
In its letter, SAALT reported that one asylum seeker’s arms and legs were tied to a chair in order to facilitate force-feeding.
The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund also participated in the Feb. 15 rally at El Paso. Kiran Kaur Gill, SALDEF representative, entered the facility and spoke with some of the detainees.
“The man I spoke to was abnormally thin and weak, and told me that he was in a significant amount of pain and was concerned his kidneys are failing,” Gill stated in a press statement released by SALDEF.
“He talked about abusive treatment that he has received which included derogatory and aggressive speech by the officers to the detainees. He also mentioned the staff inserting the feeding tubes in an extremely painful manner,” she said.
Gill met with Susie Byrd, District Director for Escobar’s Texas office. Escober has asked ICE for its regulations regarding force-feeding and the use of solitary confinement.
The Sikh Coalition also met with the hunger-striking detainees and participated in the day-long Feb. 15 rally. Sikh Coalition legal director Amrith Kaur and Community Development manager Inderpreet Kaur joined Michigan immigration attorney Ruby Kaur to meet with Sikh detainees.