The Hunger Strike You Haven’t Heard About

CREDIT: Desis Rising Up And Moving (DRUM)

A photo of the 11 immigrant detainees released by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Bangladeshi asylum seekers ended a week-long hunger strike at the El Paso Processing Center in Texas this week after they protested their potential deportation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The strikers began to eat on Tuesday after ICE brought in the Bangladeshi Consul General to pressure the group to break their strike, according to the Bangladesh-based outlet News Next BD.

The hunger strike began on the morning of October 14, when 54 South Asian asylum seekers from Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan refused food and water at the El Paso detention center. Five days later, another 14 Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants began a solidarity hunger strike at the Lasalle Detention Center in Louisiana. It’s unclear whether non-Bangladeshi detainees have ended their strike at both facilities.

All of the men on hunger strike were approved for their credible fear findings, a preliminary step in the asylum review process. The ICE agency established policies in 2010 stating that asylum seekers who pass their credible fear interview should be automatically considered for parole from detention. Nonetheless, some of the hunger strikers have been held in immigration detention anywhere between nine months and two years, even though the average detention time hovers around 31 days.

The trigger for the hunger strike came after an asylum seeker — a member of Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the country’s second largest political party — was deported just one month ago.

Being deported back to Bangladesh can be dangerous for people who identify with BNP. Officials make sure that BNP activists “disappear” with their “bodies turned up on the streets,” according to Fahd Ahmed, the executive director at the advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), which is speaking up on behalf of the detainees on hunger strike. Ahmed said that, although the man is currently safe back in his country, he’s staying “low to the ground” because he risks retaliation from the government.

Some of the Bangladeshi detainees also identify with the BNP; their continued detention is due in part to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) adoption of the position that the BNP is a undesignated “Tier III” terrorist organization. Affiliated members are ineligible for asylum or ineligible for withholding of removal. But immigrant advocacy groups have charged that there hasn’t been enough evidence to establish an explicit finding that the BNP is a state sponsor of terrorism. What’s more, the Indian detainees are from the province of Punjab where “there’s a lot of repression going on with a sharp uptick in the last week,” while other detainees from Afghanistan and Pakistan are “escaping ongoing conflicts and wars,” Ahmed explained.

In an effort to end the hunger strike, ICE agents reportedly strip-searched 31 detainees in “full public view of all the other strikers.”

One of the detainees, Haji Khiay Mohamed Bilal, was put in solitary confinement for two days because he had provided interpretation support for the other men and had communicated with lawyers and with media people, Ahmed charged.

“On the third day of the hunger strike, the guards came in and in front of all the detainees, twisted his arm, slapped him, and took him out,” Ahmed said. “He was retaliated against because of the leadership role he took and it was also confirmed by the fact that he never received a reason for why he was put in solitary confinement, which they’re required to give.”

The prolonged detention of the South Asian immigrants sheds some light on the disparate treatment that they face, such as being denied access to appropriate translators for the dialects they speak. Because many men come to the United States alone, Ahmed said they are “more isolated than other detainees” and are less likely to get legal representation since they don’t have the right to counsel. In some cases, Ahmed believes that the guards are trying “to foment tension between the detainees across ethnicity lines.”

The protest appears to have had its intended effect for at least some of the detainees. ICE released 11 detainees on parole on Monday, six of whom had participated in the hunger strike. They were finally given access to their written immigration orders — the documents they need to file a notice of appeal after their cases close within 30 days. Previously, the “copies were withheld from the detainees” and the detainees missed their the window, Ahmed said.

South Asians have been the victims of detention purgatory before. Last year, 32 Sikh immigrant detainees also went on a hunger strike at the El Paso Processing Center despite having passed their credible fear interviews. In that incident, the ICE agency also brought in members of the Indian consulate to pressure the detainees to end their strike, an unusual tactic given that asylum seekers are hoping to get away from their former governments.

Some advocates believe that South Asian immigrants are kept in prolonged detention in part because of a congressional federal appropriations budget which has set a mandate of 31,000 detention beds filled on any given day.