After more than seven months in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, a gay Venezuelan man who is HIV-positive, Jesus Rodriguez Mendoza, staged a seven-day hunger strike in protest of his inhumane treatment. He didn’t eat from Thursday, November 30, until late on Thursday, December 7, when, feeling desperately weak and finding blood in his stool, he decided to pause his strike. Medical staff also told him that they were going to start force-feeding him on the following day. Among his complaints to ICE, the agency that runs the El Paso Processing Center (EPPC) where Mendoza is housed, are discrimination based on sexual preference and medical condition, lack of access to necessary and life-saving medication, prolonged detention, and near-complete disregard from his deportation officer, who he saw for the first time only after he began his hunger strike. Besides the single short visit with his deportation officer, he has not been contacted by any ICE officials since he began his strike. If Mendoza doesn’t get notice on his parole petition by December 24, he vows to stop eating again.
On December 4, four days into his hunger strike, Mendoza wrote in a letter to his advocates: “In the first six months that I have been detained at the El Paso Processing Center, I have made twenty-five requests to meet with my deportation officer, Officer Valencia, and all have been denied or ignored. My two previous requests for parole have been denied and it is still not clear to me why.” His attorney, Linda Rivas, from the El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, helped him file his third petition for parole, which is currently under consideration.
Originally from Venezuela, Mendoza spent 10 years living in the United States, in the Miami and New York City areas, working in online advertising on multiple visas. He has also lived in the UK, has no deportations from the US, did not overstay any of his visas, and has never committed an immigration violation. In 2006, he returned to Venezuela, where he worked in IT for the opposition party’s presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, who in 2012 ran against and lost to the late Hugo Chávez. Because of strong anti-homosexual sentiment in Venezuela, he mostly hid his sexuality, and struggled to treat his HIV. “I never got any medicine from the government,” he told me in a phone call. Originally diagnosed in 2002, while in Venezuela he received his medication from friends abroad. After a while, no longer able to sustainably self-import his medication, he registered to receive treatment in Venezuela, but was told he was not a priority; his health began to deteriorate. At the same time, he began receiving threatening letters, referencing the fact that he was HIV positive—he suspected them to be from government supporters—and was followed on multiple occasions.
Feliciano Reyna, the founder of Acción Solidaria, a Venezuelan nonprofit that helps HIV-infected people access treatment, explained to me that it was exactly in these years, 2012 to 2013, when the health crisis for Venezuelans with HIV and AIDS began, with severe shortages of anti-retroviral drugs, condoms, and HIV-testing agents. Reyna also described pervasive discrimination against those with HIV in the Venezuelan health system.
Fearing for his safety and his health, Mendoza fled the country, first to Mexico, where he worked on a visa, and finally to the United States. He presented himself at the Ysleta, Texas border crossing on April 28, 2017, and requested asylum. His attorney explained that he has a dual asylum claim—both political and based on his discrimination because of his sexual orientation—calling it a “viable claim.”
Mendoza described the bitter welcome he received when he first showed up at the US border. After requesting asylum and volunteering to the CBP officials that he was gay and HIV-positive, an officer locked him in a room and told a woman who was cleaning to “get out, because he’s sick.” He was closed into a freezing cold holding center for a day and a half—one of the notorious hieleras. As he was being transferred to the EPPC, they put a mask over his face, and when a guard asked why he had a mask on, the agent said, “He has HIV.” He has remained locked up inside the EPPC, with approximately 800 other inmates, with some periods in solitary confinement, for the past seven months.
In the same letter to supporters, Mendoza wrote: “If ICE is denying my parole knowing that I have a serious medical condition, why are they not taking care of me?” Despite detention center staff being aware of his HIV-positive status and his repeated requests for antiretroviral therapy, Mendoza claims he has received insufficient care, and that his medical condition has significantly deteriorated. He reports depression, mouth sores, tooth and gum infections, as well as intense stomach pain resulting from an antibiotic he was prescribed. He describes filthy showers and, more threateningly, he alleges that he was forced to change his anti-retroviral medication—which can have serious effects on his immune system, making him vulnerable to sickness. According to Mendoza, ICE has yet to grant his requests for standard follow-up viral load and CD4 cell count testing. ICE did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
In a recent call with ICE officials, Mendoza’s lawyer, Linda Rivas, was told that ICE cannot release a hunger striker: “ICE acknowledges my client is seriously ill, yet delaying critical medical testing and making arbitrary medication changes demonstrates they are not taking the necessary steps to improve his health.… Every day he spends in detention places him at greater risk of irreparable damage from HIV-related complications. [He] believes a hunger strike is his only hope of being heard.”
Requirements for parole eligibility include having a sponsor to financially and practically support a client, not being a flight risk, having strong ties to a US community, and not posing a danger to society. Mendoza fulfills all requirements.
Sebastian de Kleer, a US legal permanent resident originally from Holland, who has known Mendoza for over 10 years and is acting as his sponsor, described him as “a wonderful optimist. He works really hard. He’s a fighter. Very creative.” He also explained the difficulty Mendoza faced living as a closeted gay man in Venezuela. “You can’t be yourself,” de Kleer said. “It was very tough for him.” According to Ian Philabaum, program director at the Innovation Law Lab, who has been keeping close watch over the case, Mendoza has “a warm and loving home waiting for him” outside of detention. On May 10, Rodriguez Mendoza passed his Credible Fear Interview, an early step in the asylum process, and yet parole remains out of reach.
Major changes in parole policy started about two years ago, Rivas explained. Previously, in the El Paso sector, asylum seekers could be let out on parole to continue their cases from outside detention. Now, Rivas said, “parole doesn’t happen in El Paso.… Nobody achieves parole.” As the Borderland Immigration Council 2017 report, “Discretion to Deny,” lays out in detail, “immigration agencies and officials in the El Paso sector [fail] to respect fundamental human rights and dignity.” Prolonged detention and the failure to heed humanitarian claims are common, as is the “systematic deterrence of asylum seekers” at the border and “unaccountable, arbitrary denial of parole.”
Rivas said that ICE officials are “empowered by the political climate,” and even “refuse to follow their own rules.” She described “elderly people with health conditions being denied, pregnant women being denied, women who just had miscarriages while in detention being denied. It’s just a denial all around.” She added that the blanket denial functions as a deterrent not only for potential asylum seekers, but also for advocates wanting to help. One of her past clients, after suffering months in detention while futilely trying to make parole, told her, “I’d rather go home and die.”
“Nobody achieves parole in El Paso,” Rivas put it bluntly, adding: “[ICE] refuses to give us any sort of guidelines as to who they would release [on parole] and who they wouldn’t.”
“The most difficult thing in my entire life,” is how Mendoza described his time in detention. “I can’t even explain what it is like here.” He feels powerless, said Philabaum, who has been getting updates three to five times a day on Mendoza’s condition. “ICE stripped him of all his agency.”
“I feel so neglected,” Mendoza told me. “I feel absolutely loopy,” adding that he spends hours a day crying. After allegations that homosexual detainees were harassing other detainees, creating an environment of hostility, guards started enforcing a new rule, disallowing detainees to sit on the same bed together. Other detainees blamed Mendoza for the new rule, because he is gay.
When I spoke with Mendoza for the first time, on December 7, he hadn’t eaten in seven days. I asked him how he felt, and he said, “Okay,” and then added, “I am strong.” He was periodically receiving IV fluids. His T-cell count, a measure of the strength of his immune system, has been low since he’s been in detention.
According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, “LGBTQ immigrants pursuing claims to protection that are related to their sexual orientation or gender identity often face discriminatory attitudes in the immigration court system that lead to denials of immigration protection and longer periods of detention.” Other studies corroborate that ICE detains LGBTQ immigrants at higher rates than heterosexual detainees and that they are more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. Until 1990, homosexuality, by itself, was grounds for exclusion from the United States, and it wasn’t until 2009 that President Obama ended a ban prohibiting people with HIV from traveling to this country.
The stigma, however, lives on inside immigration detention facilities. Jamila Hammami, executive director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, wrote to me, “The plight of LGBTQI/GNC [Gender Non-conforming] folks in detention continues to become increasingly more isolating and discriminatory. ICE cannot keep people safe, engages in gross medical neglect, does not parole people out, and has created barriers for folks that have to ‘prove’ their queerness to them in order to be released on asylum. And still, often people don’t receive asylum in the end.”
I spoke with Dr. Wayne Centrone, executive director of Health Bridges International, an organization focused on improving the health of underserved communities, who has been consulting in Rodriguez Mendoza’s case. While Centrone reminded me that HIV is a chronic disease that can be treated quite well, stress, especially chronic stress, can depress the immune system and “lead to an acceleration of HIV.” Higher levels of stress and the “challenges of self-advocacy” in a detention center, can make it much more difficult to manage the disease, Centrone explained.
According to “Tylenol and an ICE Pack: An Inadequate Prescription for HIV/AIDS in Immigration Detention Centers,” a paper published by the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Carl Kenneth Lipscombe writes, “Given the staggering costs of HIV treatment, it comes as no surprise that patient’s [sic] requests are frequently denied.” Lipscombe collected statements from HIV-positive detainees that “demonstrate the substandard continuity of treatment in ICE facilities,” including incidences in which detainees have died because of poor treatment.
Alan Dicker, of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee (DMSC), who has been supporting Mendoza since this summer, described the already obdurate stance ICE was taking towards allowing parole in El Paso, which has been “exacerbated under Trump.” “ICE officers will tell [asylum seekers] straight up, ‘Parole is not an option,’” Dicker said. He also described, echoing the Center for HIV Law and Policy paper, the history of inadequate medical care in the EPPC: “The default treatment,” even with serious medical issues, “is ‘Drink more water, take a Tylenol.’”
In a report written by DMSC, one detainee, kept anonymous for fear of reprisals, described the hostility of the ICE officers: “If we try to stand for our rights ICE agents try to scare us with threats like…‘we would send you to the hole for some days.’”
Mendoza described his struggle as part of a collective struggle, in concert with the other detainees; he wasn’t just hunger-striking for himself. The guards and the nurses are not the problem, he told me. There are some bad apples, he said, but they’re the minority. “ We don’t suffer because we are being treated badly,” he said. “We are suffering because of ICE. We are facing a jail sentence here. A jail sentence that doesn’t have any end.” You never see ICE officials, he told me, “ICE are like ghosts.”