Why Hundreds Of Immigrant Detainees Are Refusing To Eat

CREDIT: AP Photo/Alicia Caldwell

Undocumented immigrants from Mexico wait in a holding area in El Paso, Texas, Thursday, May 1, 2008. U.S. Border Patrol agents have discretion to send undocumented immigrants home instead of throwing them in jail. In some cases, they do it over and over and over. (AP Photo/Alicia Caldwell)

Over the past month, hundreds of immigrant detainees have stopped eating.

This act of civil disobedience began in Texas, when 54 South Asian detainees seeking asylum began a hunger strike calling to be released from the El Paso Processing Center. In solidarity, 14 South Asian detainees at the LaSalle Detention Facility in Louisiana and 27 immigrant women at the T Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas launched their own hunger strikes. And in the latest wave, hundreds of immigrant men are refusing meals at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California.

Many of these people, who are being detained as their cases make their way up to immigration judges, have already passed their “credible fear” interviews — which means they’ve successfully made the case that they would be at serious risk of persecution or death if they were deported back to their home countries. However, once they arrive in the United States, immigrants are kept in very cold detention cells, are given inedible food, and don’t receive proper medical care.

For immigrants in particular, launching a hunger strike sends a strong message: They would rather die trying to stay in America than face almost certain death in their home countries.

“I knew if I go back, I’m going to lose my life so I decided with other detainees that if we die, we’ll die here without eating,” Jhed, a 31-year-old Bangladeshi national who participated in the recent strike at the El Paso detention facility, told ThinkProgress through a translator. “We don’t want to lose our lives — we came all the way from Bangladesh to save our lives. If we die, why not die here? Why go back?”

Jhed left Bangledash because of his affiliation as a member of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the country’s second largest political party. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has labeled the party as an undesignated “Tier III” terrorist organization, though some immigrant advocates say there isn’t enough evidence to prove that.

It took four months for Jhed to reach the United States. He paid a human trafficker $30,000 — his life savings used from selling some land he owned and a small store he had in Bangladesh — to make the 16-country journey. He said that the trek involved almost every form of transportation, including riding on a bus and a “container” in a boat.

Jhed journey

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

Once he crossed the southern U.S.-Mexico border, he was brought to the El Paso detention center, where he wasn’t interviewed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers for seven days. And even then, he wasn’t told that he had the right to legal representation. “They spent three-and-a-half hours interviewing me in English, but I speak broken English, so I didn’t know what they were saying,” Jhed said.

Ultimately, his affiliation with the BNP made him ineligible for asylum and resulted in 11 months of detention. Jhed began his hunger strike partly because he felt that there was no end date to his detention and that deportation was imminent — a fear that felt more real after a fellow Bangladeshi detainee who was also affiliated with the BNP party was deported.

Jhed, a Bangladeshi national, went on a hunger strike at a detention center in El Paso, Texas.

Jhed, a Bangladeshi national, went on a hunger strike at a detention center in El Paso, Texas.

CREDIT: Desis Rising Up and Moving

Jhed’s decision to go on a hunger strike is similar to the reasons that other detainees have given, including that they want to be freed from detention and given a chance to make their asylum pleas.

Grace Meng, a senior researcher at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, visited immigrant detainees after the hunger strike concluded at the LaSalle detention center. She says that hunger strikes are often the only way for immigrants to draw attention to their situations in detention centers, which are located in isolated areas and largely “hidden from the public view.”

“Many don’t speak English well, many don’t have attorneys, and it’s very hard for media to have access to these detention centers, it’s very hard to call anyone to get attention, so they’re putting their bodies on the line to draw attention to what is happening,” Meng said. “I can’t speak for the people who made this decision, but one of the reasons they do it is that… they can have the world look at what’s happening in these facilities.”

The self-injurious protest is something that has received attention from immigrant advocates who believe that they have an obligation to care for people who come to the country seeking refuge.

Jan Meslin, Director of Social Change Development at the advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), visited both the El Paso and LaSalle facilities as immigrants were refusing food. She recounted to ThinkProgress that one Bangladeshi male detainee, identified by the initials F.A.M., looked weak and had trouble holding the phone up to speak with her during the visit. He was on the twelfth day of his strike.

“Please, ma’am, help me,” Meslin recalled F.A.M. telling her, explaining that he had a sponsor in New York willing to take him in, but he hadn’t been released and was instead reportedly put in solitary confinement for days. “I’m a good person — we’re good people. We haven’t done anything wrong.”

“It made me ashamed of my country,” Meslin said in disbelief. “I could feel his kindness.”