The series of hunger strikes by detainees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers across the country are starting to produce results, according to DRUM — South Asian Organizing Center, a New York-based immigrant rights organization working with South Asian detainees.
But while the organization says ICE has reached an agreement to release detainees being held at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange County, Calif., DRUM activists say ICE "has taken the opposite approach in other facilities."
At its peak, the series of strikes, known as the #Freedomgiving Hunger Strikes, included more than 100 detainees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Africa being held at detention centers in Alabama, California, Colorado, and Texas, according to DRUM.
According to ICE, the organization currently considers 39 detainees on hunger strike.
Last week, a federal judge authorized officials at Etowah Detention Center in Alabama to force-feed a detainee if necessary. DRUM representatives say that seven other detainees at the detention center who had been on hunger strikes are under critical medical condition and are receiving treatment at the center’s medical unit. ICE officials at the detention center also placed several detainees in solitary confinement, DRUM said.
“The men who are being tortured by ICE are experiencing at the hands of the U.S. government the very treatment they sought asylum from,” Fahd Ahmed, director of DRUM, said in a statement. “The detainees can’t be kept safe in detention, let alone prepare their case for asylum in those conditions. They must be released immediately. The world is watching what immigration authorities are doing to these people seeking safety on international human rights day, and it is outrageous."
But according to a senior ICE official, no agreement has been reached between ICE and the Theo Lacy detainees. In a statement to NBC News, ICE said it does not retaliate against hunger strikers, calling the allegations "categorically false and entirely without merit."
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody," ICE said in a statement to NBC News. "ICE has a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegations of such mistreatment seriously. The facilities named in these allegations have all been subject to regular inspections during the time period covered by these allegations, and in all instances the facilities have been found to operate in compliance with ICE’s rigorous Performance-Based National Detention Standards. The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General and ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigate all allegations of abuse or other misconduct and take appropriate action when such allegations are substantiated.”
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley have expressed support for the detainees after activists and supporters picketed outside Hillary Clinton's office last week. On Monday, Sanders met with a panel of undocumented immigrants, including Jahed Ahmed, a detainee from Bangladesh who had been released after a hunger strike, according to DRUM.
"In Bangladesh, I used to run a small shop and I was also a political activist for the Bangladesh National Party. One of my best friends was also an activist and was killed in front of my eyes by the ruling party. ...I didn't want to leave my home, but I was forced to leave my country." Ahmed told Sanders through a translator. "I crossed across 14 or 15 different countries in the four-month journey. ... When I came to the border, I claimed asylum and found myself in detention for 10 months and 13 days. All of us who had taken the same journey for similar reasons had credible fear findings but found that there was no way out and there was no way for us to properly fight our cases while we were in detention."
Sanders asked Ahmed what would happen if he were deported to Bangladesh to which Ahmed responded that he would probably be tortured and killed. Ahmed then asked Sanders if he would be willing to visit the detention centers to see first-hand the conditions of the asylum-seekers.
"It is something that I would be interested in doing but given my schedule between Congress and the campaign, I can't promise you when and where this would be," Sanders said. "Above and beyond immigration reform, we have a very broken criminal justice system. You may or may not know that In America we have more people in jail than in any other country. Many of them who are in jail should not be in jail."
On Thursday, supporters of the detainees will hold a rally at ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., to demand the release of the detainees, the halting of deportation orders, and an end to the reported torture tactics inside the detention centers.