In El Paso, Texas, an eerily familiar story of negligent immigration custody is playing out — only this time, it’s asylum-seekers from India alleging mistreatment by the federal government.
Bruised, weak, desperate, and starving, seven Punjabi Indian asylum-seekers have been languishing in an El Paso immigration detention center for months. The men report being sent to solitary confinement, pushed and dragged along the floor, and subjected to a torturous two weeks of force-feeding as they engaged in an ongoing hunger strike. After “their spirits were broken,” according to one advocate in close contact with the asylum-seekers, five of the men recently resumed eating. Two of the men are continuing the strike.
The men have lost considerable weight and complain of constant cold. According to multiple accounts from advocates, attorneys, and family members, guards open outside doors to the bunk room and refuse to close them despite the objections of the detainees. One of the men has been suffering from back pain for over a week but hasn’t received medication. Three times a day, detention center staff try to cajole the remaining hunger strikers to eat. Still they refuse.
Amrit Singh, who is an uncle and a cousin to the two remaining hunger strikers, both of whom are in their early twenties, says that his nephew was so weak he could no longer stand up and could barely muster the strength to talk to him on the phone. His detained nephew reported occasional nosebleeds — which he attributed to lasting damage from a feeding tube pushed down his throat — and said he recently vomited blood. Singh says his nephew expects the force-feeding to recommence soon.
As part of a monthslong standoff with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over detention conditions, the detainees — some of whom have been in custody for 15 months — began their hunger strike in late December. Originally, there were 10 hunger strikers. One man dropped out after ICE offered surgery for his broken ankle so long as he ate, and two men were deported to India. As noted, five of the seven remaining hunger strikers were reported to have resumed eating over the weekend.
At the heart of the protests, the men allege, is prolonged detention. None of the hunger strikers were granted bonds to make their case outside of detention, which makes it much more difficult for an asylum-seeker to gain access to counsel or ultimately win their case. Detention of asylum-seekers has also been shown to have severe consequences on mental and physical health. The El Paso sector is considered ground zero for the prosecution and detention of border crossers — even those legitimately seeking asylum. As recently as 2013, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, 95 percent of asylum-seekers in El Paso and four other border districts were paroled into the U.S.; that is, they were not sent to detention and could make their asylum case freely. By March 2018, however, nearly 100 percent of asylum-seekers in the El Paso region were being detained.
“They want their cases to be heard in a proper way” without being pre-judged, says Ruby Kaur, an attorney representing two of the Indian hunger strikers. Worrying that ICE would retaliate or deport her clients in haste — both of whom voluntarily turned themselves into Border Patrol in the summer of 2018 to ask for asylum — Kaur was hesitant to discuss the details of her clients’ immigration cases.
With hopes of finding freedom from persecution, asylum-seekers from India and other parts of Asia, especially those who can’t afford a visa application, often make the trip to the U.S. border via South and Central America. Such was the trek these asylum-seekers took months ago. After crossing the border, they voluntarily turned themselves into Border Patrol officers to ask for asylum. The first of a series of coordinated hunger strikes began in Otero, New Mexico, in the spring of 2018 as part of a part of a series of rolling strikes between the Otero and El Paso detention facilities. The strikes finally came to national attention in late January, when ICE began force-feeding men in the El Paso Processing Center.
ICE obtained a court order in early February to force-feed the men, but that mandate was short lived; a renewal order for force-feeding is required every two weeks, and on Valentine’s Day, a judge opted not to extend it. (Neither ICE nor the U.S. District Court returned requests for comment explaining the judge’s decision.) And so the men returned to consuming nothing but water. Three of them have since been given IV fluids, including glucose. A few of the men have lost over 50 pounds. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) visited the detainees in early February and characterized them as “deeply traumatized.”
Advocates and lawmakers have been demanding more scrutiny about conditions and medical capacity in the Border Patrol’s short-term detention centers after a series of deaths in recent months. ICE detention centers — which hold nearly 45,000 men and women a day — are coming under increasing criticism for their squalor and medical abuse. A scathing report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General last September on ICE’s Adelanto detention center in the California desert described “significant health and safety risks,” including unsanitary cells, the overuse of segregation (or solitary confinement), and untimely and inadequate medical care. Inspectors found 15 nooses strung up in cells there, and detainees have also waged hunger strikes. Other ICE detention centers have been similarly scrutinized for being unsanitary, lacking adequate medical care, physically and verbally abusing detainees, and sending them to solitary confinement.
Though much of the national immigration debate is focused on Central American and Mexican migrants, African, Chinese, and South Asian migrants make up an increasingly large percentage of asylum-seekers. “There is a range of communities being impacted by detention that aren’t being seen,” says Lakshmi Sridaran, the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).
Not all nationalities are treated equally in immigration courts. A recent report from Syracuse University found that “detained immigrants from India had the highest odds of being granted bond — 87 percent during FY 2018, and 73 percent so far during FY 2019.” But according to Kaur, the attorney representing two of the Indian hunger strikers, about 99 percent of Indian men are denied bonds in the Otero and El Paso detention centers. All of the hunger strikers (excluding two men who failed credible fear interviews — the first step in the asylum process — and who were therefore not eligible for bond) were denied bonds to be released. Such geographic disparity between bond grant and asylum grant rates is gaping and abundant, with certain courts across the country granting asylum with regularity and other jurisdictions effectively banning asylum.
Even though a majority of Indian asylum-seekers are granted bonds nationally, they also “had the highest required median bond amounts — $17,000 in FY 2018 and $20,000 in FY 2019,” according to the Syracuse University report. For many immigrants from India, where the average daily wage for unskilled laborers can be as low as only a few dollars a day, those costs are out of reach.
As dire as ICE custody may be, however, the detainees believe it’s a better option than returning to India, where they say they are being persecuted by the government. Craig says one of the asylum-seekers reported that since he’s been in detention, his mother has been the victim of a knife attack back in India. All of the hunger strikers in this case are Punjabi Sikh Indians, an ethnic minority that has faced severe mistreatment in India, including murder, religious persecution, and mass displacement. In the last five years and again in recent weeks as violence has repeatedly flared, the number of Indian asylum-seekers to the U.S. has grown. Without going into detail about the particularities of the individual asylum claims, Singh described a situation in Punjab, India, which is close to the border with Pakistan, as being rife with political tension and drug smuggling — a place where life has become increasingly dangerous for young men, prompting some to migrate.
In 2018, there were approximately 10,000 Indians who filed for asylum in the U.S., putting India in the top five countries for sheer number of asylum applicants. Especially for those fleeing the Punjab, asylum-seekers face ethnic violence and grinding poverty — two consequences of a long period of colonial rule that both bear striking similarities to the conditions forcing Central Americans to flee.
As BuzzFeed reported in 2016, however, many Indians — and Sikhs in particular — are met with suspicion by immigration officers. Between 2012 and 2017, around 42 percent of Indian asylum claims were rejected, which is lower than the current overall denial rate of about 65 percent. Left confined in detention centers for extended periods and struggling with extremely high bond rates, South Asian asylum-seekers have gone on hunger strikes multiple times in recent years. In 2014, 37 Punjabi Indian detainees went on a hunger strike in El Paso. In the 2015, over 50 El Paso detainees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan went on a hunger strike. And last June, over 100 South Asian asylum-seekers went on a hunger strike in an immigration detention center in Georgia. The strikers have cited prolonged detention, lack of room to pray, not being allowed to wear their turban or traditional Sikh bracelet, and being forced to eat meat.
“They are convinced that if they return to India, they will die,” says Nathan Craig, a volunteer with the nonprofit Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) who has been visiting the hunger strikers.
The conditions Craig and other advocates described witnessing during the force-feeding sessions are horrifying. According to multiple accounts, medical staff inserted tubes through the hunger strikers’ nostrils, forced the tubes down their throats to their stomachs, and poured Boost meal replacement drinks into the tubes three times a day.
Craig first met with these hunger strikers on Jan. 27, when they still had the gastric tubes in their noses. Already about a month into their strike, it had become difficult for the men to walk, Craig said. On Feb. 25, one of the men told Craig that he and two of the other hunger strikers were receiving IV fluids and glucose twice a day under court order. (An ICE spokesperson couldn’t confirm this and said in a statement that “ICE has no additional comments about this issue, which involves federal orders.” The district court did not respond to requests for comment about the court orders.) The hunger striker told Craig that if they didn’t submit to the IV fluids, they would be forced. He also told Craig that he was passing blood in his stool. Kaur, the attorney for two of the current Indian detainees, confirmed that one of her clients was under a “modified court order of force-feeding” because “these guys are so weak in body they aren’t able to come and talk to the visitors anymore” and aren’t calling their attorneys or advocates as often.
According to discussions with multiple people — Craig, Kaur, and a nurse who visited the men — and reports from the Associated Press, the men were tied to the table and fed so quickly they vomited and developed sores in their noses and throats. They said that when they have resisted the force-feeding, they have been pushed and dragged to the feeding sessions, where they were made to lie flat on an examination table without a pillow. One of the men said he asked for a wheelchair to get to and from the sessions and was denied. Another one of the men Craig visited showed him scabs on his knees that he asserted were a result of being dragged to a force-feeding session.
Sally Atkinson, a retired nurse of 40 years and a volunteer with AVID, visited two of the hunger strikers in early February while they were still being force fed. She says that the tubes coming out of and taped down to the men’s noses looked “way bigger than any feeding tube used now,” resembling Salem Sump tubes which are used for pumping stomachs, not for feeding. She also commented that the men looked “very weak, very pale” and said one had trouble standing up. The World Medical Association has condemned the force-feeding of hunger strikers as “unethical” and “never justified” — though hunger strikers in ICE detention have in the past been threatened with force-feeding.
Advocates are also concerned about a visit to the El Paso detention center in early February by officers from the Indian consulate. It’s not standard for representatives of the government asylum-seekers are fleeing to be allowed to access detainees, and advocates saw it as a clear scare tactic. Naindeep Singh, the executive director of the Jakara Movement community development nonprofit, described a 2014 incident in which the Indian consulate visited previous Indian detainees on hunger strike, also in El Paso, and threatened them with torture.
“It’s a coercive tactic to break the hunger strike,” SAALT’s Sridaran says, explaining ICE’s motivation for bringing in the Indian consulate. She noted that a similar move was made in at least two other hunger strikes. The Indian consulate did not respond to a request for comment.
The hunger strikers now find themselves faced with a terrifying catch-22: submit to deportation back to a country where their lives are at peril or continue to appeal to the sympathies of ICE as they slowly starve themselves. This past weekend, at the end of a visit with Craig and other members of AVID, one of the hunger strikers fell to the floor. The guards were allegedly slow to respond, and, instead of offering the detainee a wheelchair, they repeatedly encouraged him to stand up. When asked by Craig why they were not giving him a wheelchair, the guard said that it was a “decision by medical staff.”
As of Tuesday, the men haven’t eaten voluntarily for 67 days. “They’re dying,” says Sridaran. “They’re not eating. They’re literally dying.”