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.”