Immigration activists brought the current fight over immigrant detention to Hillary Clinton’s doorstep Thursday. Two dozen activists protested outside Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters to push the Democratic presidential front-runner and Bernie Sanders to respond to #Freedomgiving—the name activists gave to a week-long hunger strike that began the day before Thanksgiving and is currently being waged by more than 100 asylum seekers who are held in at least six detention centers across the country.
According to Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), the New York City–based group that has helped amplify strikers’ demands beyond the detention walls, more than 150 detainees are currently on hunger strike, including 14 detainees at Krome Detention Center in Florida who joined the protest on December 2.
Roughly two-thirds of the strikers are from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, or India, and the other third are from Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, according to DRUM’s executive director Fahd Ahmed. Every one of the strikers fled the threat of retaliation and persecution in their home countries, Ahmed says, and entered the country via a port of entry at the US-Mexico border in the hopes of being granted asylum.
As of Thursday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) own tally of hunger strikers stood at 109: 43 detainees at Etowah Detention Center in Alabama; 35 at Theo Lacy Immigration Detention Facility in California; 13 at Otay Mesa Detention Center, also in California; 11 at Denver Contract Detention Facility in Colorado; six at the South Texas Detention Center; and one at the Orange County jail in New York. DRUM and ICE’s numbers are different, at the very least due to how ICE classifies hunger-strike participation. ICE considers a person to be on hunger strike only when they’ve refused or missed nine consecutive meals.
Lorella Praeli, director of Latino outreach for Clinton, came outside and listened to the protesters as former detainees read statements about their time in detention and activists called for reform of the country’s immigrant detention system. Arturo Carmona, Praeli’s counterpart in the Sanders campaign, released a statement of support for the hunger strike just as the New York City action got under way.
“We listened to their stories, and are inspired by the important role that activism plays to implement change on behalf of immigrant families,” Jorge Silva, a Clinton campaign spokesperson, told me. “Hillary Clinton believes our immigration enforcement and detention system must be humane, and ensure the dignity, safety, and well-being of every human being.”
The first step in the asylum application process is to establish a credible fear of persecution or torture in a person’s home country, after which, ICE policy dictates that applicants be eligible for parole from detention. But, contrary to the agency’s policies, even detainees who have cleared the credible fear hurdle are being held for lengthy stays stretching up to two years, Ahmed says. “They all are people who had long, long arduous journeys to get here,” Ahmed told The Nation. “They are people who have seen death along the way, drowning, car accidents, suffocating, and that clearly indicates the level of desperation pushing people to flee.”