Originally published by LA Times
Over the years, hunger strikes have been a tool used to bring attention to what’s happening inside immigrant detention facilities.
Advocates say that hunger strikes are a form of free speech to make the public aware of detainee suffering. U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement has said that “it fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference.”
But on Friday, ICE alleged that a ongoing hunger strike inside Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield was borne of “potential internal and external coercion.”
The agency cited an anonymous source who allegedly told staff “that an attorney instructed a detainee to initiate a hunger strike,” ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor said in a statement. He declined to provide any details about the source.
“We have to keep in mind people’s safety in these kinds of settings,” said Moor, who did not provide any information about the attorney.
ICE also stated that a detainee was allegedly threatened with physical harm by other detainees if the he did not participate in the hunger strike.
Centro Legal de la Raza, which released a statement on Thursday announcing the hunger strike, characterized ICE’s release as “a false statement.”
“This was something that was organized by immigrants at the detention center and was led in large part by black immigrants,” said Lisa Knox, managing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza. “I think the fact that ICE is framing them as people who are engaging in violence and invoking these ‘outside agitators’ tropes is frankly racist.”
Across the country, 781 immigrants and 44 ICE employees at detention centers have tested positive for the coronavirus. Mesa Verde had no reported cases of COVID-19 as of June 5, either among detainees or staff, according to ICE.
In April, advocates said hundreds of immigrants detained in California facilities were on hunger strikes over conditions that left them vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
At the time, ICE officials said that two detainees were on hunger strikes at Adelanto, northeast of Los Angeles, and none at any other facility. According to ICE policy, facility staff must record detainees not eating for 72 hours before designating a hunger strike.
The hunger strike at Mesa Verde began on Thursday, according to Centro Legal de la Raza.
“We begin our protest in memory of our comrades George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, and Tony McDade,” participants said in a statement released by the advocacy group, naming some notable cases of black people killed by law enforcement officers. “Almost all of us have also suffered through our country’s corrupt and racist criminal justice system before being pushed into the hands of ICE.”
On Thursday, 77 detainees at the facility did not eat dinner, according to Moor. The next day, 78 did not attend breakfast and 83 did not attend lunch. Of those, 21 detainees made hunger strike claims to staff; the rest said they just didn’t want to eat their facility-provided meals, he said.
In its Friday statement, ICE cited “recent correspondence where at least one detainee was threatened with physical harm by other detainees if the individual did not participate in a hunger strike.”
“Detainees also told ICE staff that outside sources may be attempting to encourage detainees to participate in these hunger strikes by providing additional funds in the commissary accounts of select detainees in order to encourage the coercing of other detainees to participate in these hunger strikes,” Moor said.
According to Moor, detainees reported that they were told the purpose of the hunger strikes was “to protest the repetitive cycle of the meal menu.”
“However, claims from external groups say their concerns are regarding ICE’s response to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
Asif Qazi, a strike participant, called the ICE statement “total bull—.” He stated that during a previous hunger strike participants had attributed their action to the meal menu, “because we were afraid ICE might retaliate.”
A class-action lawsuit filed against ICE by the American Civil Liberties Union in April alleged 1st Amendment retaliation and that an ICE policy of punishing participation in any kind of demonstration violates the 1st Amendment.
Qazi said detainees did not tell ICE that the meal menu was the purpose of the current hunger strike. He added that seven people in his dorm are not participating in the strike and that there have not been any threats.
“They’re liars,” said 31-year-old Qazi, who has been held at the facility for four months. “Nobody is coercing us to do this.”
Qazi, who arrived to the U.S. from Bangladesh when he was 6 years old, said he’s in ICE custody after being convicted of an ammunition charge.Detainees, he said, are participating in the strike “out of our own desire to make a change.”
“We decided to do this on our own because of the poor medical care we receive and the poor conditions in this facility that do not enable us to stay safe from the coronavirus pandemic,” Qazi said.