Five men are on a hunger strike that has gone on for longer than 90 days, protesting against their detention at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) facility in Jena, Louisiana. Now advocates worry the men are on the brink of death.
The men have applied for asylum in the US and are waiting for an immigration judge to rule on their cases.
Advocates have filed an official complaint against Ice, condemning the organization for not providing the men with proper medical treatment during the strike. Two men have reportedly been force-fed – an act that multiple medical associations and human rights groups in the United States have said is inhumane and unethical.
A second complaint was filed alleging Ice has not released the medical records of two of the men for independent review, a right that exists for those in Ice detention to ensure they are getting proper treatment.
The men are all from south Asia and are seeking asylum in the US out of fear of religious persecution or retaliation for their political beliefs back home. Advocates say all five have friends and family in the United States who are waiting for them to be released.
One of the men, Mehla, 22, who wished to go by a pseudonym for fear of repercussions if he was deported, told the Guardian he fled to the US after he was pushed out of India for converting to Christianity. After he fled, members of the RSS, a rightwing Hindu nationalist party, came to his family’s home looking for him and threatened violence if he returned.
After arriving in Germany with help from a family member, Mehla then went to Spain, where he took a flight to Mexico. He eventually crossed the Mexican border into the United States. Mehla was detained by Ice on 21 January last year, and has remained in detention since.
“I applied for asylum. I am not a criminal. I never did any crime. I’ve never been to jail,” Mehla said in Hindi through a translator. “My demand is that they release me so I can fight my case outside detention.”
Mehla is one of hundreds of thousands of migrants who have crossed the southern border in recent years to seek asylum. The US is obliged to allow migrants to go through the asylum application process if they fear persecution at home.
Historically, those who apply for asylum in the US have been able to wait out the application process, which can take up to two years, outside detention if a judge approves a release on parole or bond.
But legal advocates say migrants are being routinely denied parole or bond, meaning they are indefinitely held in Ice detention until their cases are heard before an immigration judge.
“It’s just inhuman to keep these people for so many months in detention,” said Victoria Mesa-Estrada, senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has filed a lawsuit on behalf of migrants seeking parole.
Mesa-Estrada said “immigration detention is a profitable business, especially in a state like Louisiana.” Ice turned eight state prisons and local jails in Louisiana into migrant detention facilities in 2019, though the number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border started declining in the fall. The detention facilities, such as the one in Jena, tend to be in rural areas hours away from the urban centers.
Multiple hunger strikes have occurred at Ice detention facilities in the deep south in the wake of the alleged mass denials of bond and parole.
Mehla and the other men started their hunger strike on 1 November last year. Mehla said he weighed 161lb before the strike and now weighs 116lb. All five men – who range from early 20s to mid-30s – are in wheelchairs because they are too weak to walk.
Advocates say two of the men have been force-fed, which requires a judge’s approval, via a tube that is inserted through the nostril and passed down to the stomach. The process is painful, especially if a person is resisting.
Ice first revealed it was force-feeding migrants who went on hunger strike last January, when it confirmed at least six detainees were force-fed through nasal tubes. The migrants on hunger strike at that time were in Texas, Florida, Arizona and California.
Michelle Iglesias, an Ice contract physician based in El Paso, Texas, testified in August at a hearing to allow two men from India to be force-fed that Ice regulations required force-feeding if it was necessary to prevent hunger strikes from starving themselves to death.
“There wouldn’t be anyone in a hospital who would do it,” Iglesias said, according to Texas Monthly.
Ice did not respond to requests for comment.
Michelle Graffeo, a volunteer who visits two of the men every Sunday, said Ice keeps the feeding tube, which migrants call “the pipe”, in the body for as long as three weeks at a time.
Graffeo said that for one of the men being force-fed, the process was much worse than the pain of hunger.
“To see him like that for the first time with [a compression head wrap] and the tube, and he was vomiting, I felt like I was watching someone die, which I still feel,” Graffeo said. “I am watching them die.”
Mehla has not been force-fed, but is worried that it may come to that point. “I’m scared of that, but I can’t do anything,” he said. “If they’re going to do a force-feeding, I can’t stop them.”
Two of the men on hunger strike are now voluntarily drinking Boost nutritional supplement, though they refuse all other food, Graffeo said. One has been transferred to a facility in El Paso, while the last two men are being held in isolation, Graffeo learned last Sunday.
Despite the potential health consequences and the pain of being on strike, Mehla said that he will continue his protest.n “The day I will start eating and drinking is the day I start being free,” he said.