Since January, we’ve been visiting the nine Sikh men in the El Paso Service Processing Center who have been on hunger strike, some for over 70 days. As volunteers with Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID), an immigrant-support group, we’ve watched their rapid decline as they protest the unfair treatment of immigration judges, abusive behavior of facility staff, and prolonged detention. Every week, we learn of a new horror as they recount their experiences.
What we witnessed this past Sunday now causes us to question whether these asylum seekers will survive another day in ICE detention.
Mr. Singh was the weakest we have seen him. We believe he’s already been the victim of retaliatory measures for hunger striking, and we’re using a pseudonym here to protect him from further attacks. He is now in the 10th week of starving himself. In mid-January, under a court order he was never shown, ICE started force-feeding Singh through a tube inserted in his nose. That tube was removed in mid-February. He is now teetering on the border between life and death; and yet one of us saw firsthand the facility staff’s negligent indifference toward him. If ICE doesn’t release this man and the others who have been on hunger strike, we fear there will be yet another avoidable death of a migrant held in ICE custody. For the sake of their health, these men must be immediately released to their support networks in the United States.
Since first visiting him four weeks ago, Singh’s condition has deteriorated rapidly. When submitting visitation paperwork, we repeatedly requested he be provided with a wheelchair to come to visitation. Singh and the other men report often requesting wheelchairs, a reasonable accommodation under ICE’s own detention standards. Last Sunday, he was again not provided one, and he hobbled into the visitation booth to speak to us through safety glass over a crackly phone. A tall and, until recently, strong young man, he is now spindly and gaunt. As a further insult, instead of being seen right away, Singh waited for a long time to visit because facility staff did not distinguish between him and other Punjabi men who share the same last name. They brought the wrong Sikh man, whose condition is not as severe, instead of Singh. Since each individual is assigned a unique “Alien” or “A” number, similar names should be no cause for confusion. These repeated mix-ups are either indications that the facility staff don’t see these men as individual people, or these are deliberate acts of retaliation. Both possibilities are disturbing.
One of the first things Singh said when we finally sat down was, “I can’t remember things, my memory is failing me. My brain is not functioning well.”
We were able to communicate with him for about 20 minutes, during which he told us about a series of previously unreported brutal incidents he has suffered while at EPSPC. He described being forcefully held to the ground, while a guard stepped on his feeding tube: “One of the officers had his foot stepping on the feeding pipe. He was stepping on it, and that was how it came out. It was very painful a lot of bleeding.”
He also told us about being held face down on the floor by multiple guards. He said a staff member used wrist locks to force the men to the weighing station: “One of my friends had a fractured wrist, and they twisted his wrist too. We were all screaming in pain, but because of his condition it was especially painful.”
By the end of our conversation, he was no longer able to hold his head up. Worried about his safety, we ended the visit and implored him to take care. As he rose and attempted to return to his barracks, he wobbled momentarily and collapsed to the floor, his legs folded awkwardly under his thin, frail body.
Six privately contracted facility guards stood around him for about five minutes and did little more than pull on his jumpsuit to prop him up and keep him from lying down. No one spoke to him to check on his condition. After some discussion, joking, and muscle flexing among the guards, the six of them picked up the collapsed man by his armpits and took him to an adjacent room. The method they used was the same that the hunger strikers described the guards using on other occasions. To the best of our knowledge, despite multiple requests on our part, a wheelchair never arrived. One of the security guards on duty at the reception desk told us that medical made that decision. A member of the medical staff was present, but didn’t bring a wheelchair.
We fear that this man, and the others who have been on hunger strike, will not survive in detention. All of them are continuing to suffer for trying to call attention to their situation, and to the abusive and discriminatory conditions in which they have lived, some for over a year. They are in grave danger at the hands of those who are supposed to be caring for them.
Despite calls to seven ICE officials and follow-up e-mails, we received no response. In our experience, calling ICE is an exercise in futility. The extensions are frequently out of date; the phones are rarely answered; and the mailboxes are often full, making it impossible to speak to an official or even leave a message. The Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil-rights organization, did get ahold of officials at the El Paso ICE Field Office, but ICE declined to answer questions about specific detained individuals.
These problems are not unique to El Paso. Reports are surfacing across the United States of the mistreatment and deaths of migrants and asylum seekers in ICE detention facilities. The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General recently authored three scathing reports regarding ICE detention (OIG-18-32,OIG-18-67, and OIG-18-86). In the past two years, there have been at least 22 deaths in US immigration-detention facilities. ICE is not equipped to provide humane medical services to people, who are simply awaiting their immigration hearings in accordance to US immigration law. While they wait for their due process, Singh, his fellow hunger strikers, and migrants and asylum seekers across the United States are being exposed to “conduct akin to torture”—to use the language of the US Commission on Civil Rights 2015 report on ICE detention.
There is no other choice except to release the men who had to resort to a hunger strike to call attention to their plight. Otherwise, we fear Singh will be the next victim of ICE’s cruel treatment.