U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is force-feeding six detainees through plastic nasal tubes at the El Paso Processing Center in the midst of a month-long hunger strike, the Associated Press reports.
Eleven detainees at the Texas detention facility have been refusing to eat, according to ICE, with some on strike for more than 30 days (ICE qualifies someone as a hunger striker if they refuse nine consecutive meals). However, detainees in contact with the AP, a relative and a lawyer representing hunger strikers say that the number of immigrants from Cuba and India refusing food is closer to 30. Some detainees are so weakened from the strike that they reportedly cannot stand up. ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said on Wednesday that four other detainees are refusing food in centers in Miami, Phoenix, San Diego and San Francisco.
These immigrants are putting their health on the line to protest verbal abuse, threats of deportation from guards, and the extended length of detention while they wait to see their day in court.
The medical ramifications of hunger strikes can be far-reaching. Dr. Marc Stern, who has consulted with the Department of Homeland Security in the past, explained to the AP, “You can become demented and lose coordination, and some of it is reversible, some of it isn’t. The dangers are not just metabolic. If you are very weak, you could very simply get up to do something and fall and crack your skull.”
It remains to be seen, though, if detainees’ grievances are being addressed. Zamarripa did not immediately discuss the allegations of abuse, but said that ICE would, as the AP put it, “follow the federal standards for care.” The spokesperson stated that a federal judge allowed the force-feeding of some El Paso hunger strikers two weeks into their protest, in mid-January.
The AP also highlighted the fact that the orders authorizing force-feeding are by no means a cut-and-dry matter, stating, “Federal courts have not conclusively decided whether a judge must issue an order before ICE force-feeds an immigration detainee, so rules vary by district and type of court, and sometimes orders are filed secretly.”
As for those being force-fed in the Texas detention center, Amrit Singh, uncle to two hunger strikers from the Indian state of Punjab, said that the immigrants with nasal tubes are experiencing nosebleeds and vomiting multiple times a day. His nephews are seeking asylum and have been refusing to eat for around a month. In September, they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge when they illegally crossed the border near El Paso, as per court records.
“They are not well. Their bodies are really weak, they can’t talk and they have been hospitalized, back and forth. They want to know why they are still in the jail and want to get their rights and wake up the government immigration system,” Singh told the AP from California.
Detainee Eiorjys Rodriguez Calderin, who described himself as a Cuban dissident, explained that he and other Cuban immigrants were in danger of persecution if deported. He said he’d passed his “credible fear” interview, which immigration authorities conduct in the beginning stages of asylum requests, and tried to be released on parole. Those being force-fed were restrained before having the tubes put in their noses, Rodriguez noted.
Force-feeding can be a very painful process, with medical experts usually placing lubricant on the tube’s tip before inserting it into the nostril. The individual must sip water while the tube is shoved down their throat. Physicians may be hesitant to participate in the force-feeding of inmates, as the American Medical Association has stated many times that the practice is ethically questionable. The AMA’s principles of medical ethics stipulates that “a patient who has decision-making capacity may accept or refuse any recommended medical intervention.”
Hunger strikes are often one of the only means prisoners have at their disposable to openly protest unjust conditions. Approximately 1,396 detainees in some 18 immigration detention facilities have gone on hunger strike since May 2015, according to the nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants.