Refugees In a Troubled Private Detention Center Are On Hunger Strike

They say they’ve suffered “humiliation and discrimination” since crossing the border.

Members of a refugee caravan riding "La Bestia," the train Central American migrants often take to traverse Mexico.Pueblo Sin Fronteras

Update (06/12/17, 10:15PM): On Monday morning, guards at the Adelanto Detention Facility allegedly attacked nine detainees, all members of a refugee caravan which arrived at the US-Mexico border in May. On Monday morning, according to two of the caravan organizers, Tristan Call and Alex Mensing, the group delivered a letter of grievances to prison officials and demanded a meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At that point, say Call and Mensing, who spoke with the refugees after the incident, guards allegedly beat the men, “drenched” them in pepper spray, handcuffed them, and placed them in restrictive housing. It was then, ICE claims, that members of the caravan announced their hunger strike. 

“They described their shirts as literally being soaked with [pepper spray] and were forced to shower in hot water,” which intensifies the pain, says Mensing. “They also beat them and bashed them against a wall, knocking a dental crown out of one of the guy’s mouth.”

Call adds, “They said the other prisoners shouted for the guards to stop but weren’t able to do anything.”                                         

In a statement e-mailed to Mother Jones this evening, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said, “Monday morning nine detainees refused to return to their assigned beds for the morning count, locked arms, and defied commands to submit to mechanical restraints. After repeated efforts to avoid confrontation, a supervisory officer used a one-second burst of pepper spray to subdue the detainees, who immediately complied and submitted to mechanical restraints. No officers or detainees were injured.”

 The facility’s staff has now begun monitoring the strikers’ food intake.

Today, members of a refugee caravan who are seeking asylum in the United States began a hunger strike at the Adelanto Detention Facility in Southern California.

“We will not eat until the government responds to our demands and agrees to negotiate,” said Isaac Lopez Castillo, a 27-year-old from El Salvador who is one of the nine refugees participating in the hunger strike, in a statement. They are asking for better food, access to clean water 24 hours a day, and quality medical care. “None of us have prior criminal records,” they note. 

Though the hunger strike reportedly began today at 5:30 in the morning, after speaking with Adelanto Detention Facility staff, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Virginia Kice stated that “there are no detainees at that center who are on a hunger strike.”

The members of the caravan, which arrived at the US-Mexico border in May, are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They fled their home countries after being targeted by violent criminal organizations, according to Tristan Call, an organizer with the Nashville-based immigrant rights group Sureñxs En Acción. “Most of them have had one or more family members murdered. A lot of them have had direct physical attacks that they survived themselves, and they’ve had extensive death threats,” says Call, who accompanied the caravan in Mexico and is speaking on behalf of the hunger strikers.

Under US and international law, border agents must admit asylum seekers to evaluate whether they have “credible fear” of returning to their home country. According to Call, at least seven of the nine hunger strikers have undergone and passed their “credible fear” interviews, a major hurdle before they may pursue their asylum cases outside of detention. Yet the caravan members argue that they are being treated with “humiliation and discrimination” at Adelanto. In addition to demanding better food and clean water, they want new uniforms—specifically, underwear that hasn’t been used by other detainees.

The hunger strikers are complaining about unreasonable bond amounts, which they say have been set at “impossibly high levels.” At least one detainee’s bail was set at $20,000, says Call. “If you set a $20,000 bond, and you’re a refugee from El Salvador coming with nothing, there is zero chance you will be able to do that. It’s essentially similar to the kind of extortion they were experiencing from the gangs they just fled from: You flee for your life from a place where you’re being extorted for tens of thousands of dollars that you can’t pay, and then you have a similar experience with the US government.”

The detainees are also asking for better access to quality medical care at Adelanto, which is operated by the GEO Group, the country’s largest private prison company. So far three immigrants have died at the facility this year. In a July 2015 letter to ICE and federal inspectors, 29 members of Congress requested an investigation into health and safety concerns at the facility, writing that “egregious” medical errors had caused a 2012 death there. Four months after the letter was sent, 400 detainees began a hunger strike.