On Wednesday August 14, advocates were alarmed when they received notice from one of the men on hunger strike in El Paso Service Processing Center that medical staff had force-fed him. Both his immigration attorney and the attorney appointed to represent him in federal court were completely unaware such measures had been authorized. Federal Judge Frank Montalvo quickly signed an order authorizing ICE to force-feed this man, giving attorneys no opportunity to respond until Monday after the controversial procedures began.
On Monday, August 20, in powerful testimony, that man took the stand in federal court. Under oath he detailed how, last week, a naso-gastric tube was inserted into his nose. Due to complications arising during the procedure, it took the nurses, supervised by Dr. Michelle Iglesias, three tries before the tube was properly inserted. The tube can stay in place for a month before needing to be switched out. In a low and calm voice, he described having to bear excruciating pain and a lot of bleeding. Since the tube has been in, he experiences continued bleeding, difficulty breathing, and an inability to sleep. Visibly grimacing multiple times during the hearing, he mustered the strength to stand at each entry and exit of the judge – the same judge who signed off on the torture to which this asylum seeker is subjected. He also described his treatment and that of the other three asylum seekers. As of Sunday, all of them have been force-fed. They are all asking for something seemingly simple: their freedom.
Dr. Iglesias, the doctor who sought the court orders, described the procedure, saying that it “can be” painful, “uncomfortable”, and there is minimal bleeding. In contrast, during testimony the man on hunger strike described how he had been kept in solitary confinement until he was taken out for the insertion of the tubes, intentionally he asserted, to show the other men the procedure. While he was held down by a team of six people, and nurses forced a tube into his nose, the other men were made to watch. Though the pain made it difficult for him to hear exactly what was being said, he described the guards as laughing and smiling at the other men telling them they would be next. This was a clear act of intimidation, and consistent with reports from 9 Sikh asylum seekers who were also force-fed under Dr. Iglesias’ supervision earlier this year.
An interesting detail that emerged from Monday’s hearing was that ICE does indeed, according to Dr. Iglesias, deport people on hunger strike. Advocates know this all too well. Two of the other Indian asylum seekers who had been abruptly transferred to Krome North Service Processing Center on July 30 were deported, more than 30 days into their hunger strike. One of the asylum seekers from that group remains in ICE custody at Krome, a facility with a history of problems. This individual has now been in the hospital for nearly two weeks. Attorneys and advocates have had little to no contact with him, but understand he remains on hunger strike 37 days after he stopped eating. These non-violent protests, sustained in the face of such brutal state policies, raise fundamental questions about the detention of all immigrants.
When asked why he began his hunger strike, that man at Monday’s hearing said “I want my freedom. That why I took this decision.” Despite the pain of the tube in his body, and the overall pain he feels for subjecting his body to starvation, when asked if he would continue on hunger strike with the tube inserted he stated “yes, until I get my freedom I’ll keep this hunger strike.” Immigration detention is, by our government’s own language, supposed to be non-punitive. It is hard to see how these asylum seekers aren’t being subjected to harsh punishment that by all accounts is torture.
The man’s attorney, Linda Corchado, took the stand on Monday and stated that ICE has the sole ability to release her clients. ICE could always release these asylum seekers. In the past they have in fact released individuals who have nearly died by hunger striking for their freedom. It took tremendous public outrage and congressional intervention to convince ICE to do the right thing. Federal judges maintain they cannot compel ICE to release these men. But we, the public, those of us who value freedom, must demand action from our congressional leaders. We ask members of Congress to demand ICE release these men to their sponsors and community supporters here in the U.S. As admitted to in court by Dr. Iglesias, ultimately no amount of force-feeding will keep them alive. As their bodies essentially eat themselves and their health continues to deteriorate, we must all ask ourselves why we are allowing our courts and law enforcement agencies to authorize this inhumane treatment.