(El Paso) – The United States government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency should immediately cease force-feeding three hunger striking detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. In an emergency hearing later today, lawyers for one of the strikers will ask a federal court in El Paso to reverse an order to authorize his force-feeding.
The Associated Press reported last week that officials were force-feeding one detainee as of last Wednesday, and on Friday a court authorized the force-feeding of two more men who had been on a hunger strike for 39 days. All three men are Indian nationals.
Authorities should not force-feed detainees who are competent and capable of rational judgment as to the consequences of refusing food. In addition, the force-feeding method used in detention – which involves shoving a plastic tube down a patient’s nose – can be very painful and is inherently cruel, inhuman, and degrading.
Dr. Michelle Iglesias, the doctor responsible for the care of hunger strikers in ICE detention at the El Paso Processing Center where the men are held, testified in a federal court hearing observed by Human Rights Watch on Friday that her patients were indeed “capable and competent enough to make a decision” and that they’d made the choice to continue their hunger strike despite having been made aware of the medical risks.
“ICE should immediately stop the cruel, inhuman, and degrading process of force-feeding any detainees who have made a competent decision to stop eating as a form of protest,” said Ariana Sawyer, assistant researcher in the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Hunger striking is a desperate expressive act. In immigration detention, it can be a response to the irrationality of prolonged and needless detention.”
While one of the hunger strikers had been hospitalized with abdominal pain, another quietly watched Friday’s proceedings unfold from a wheelchair beside an attorney. He appeared severely emaciated but alert and had been forced to wear shackles around his thin ankles.
When asked under cross-examination if the hunger strikers would be better off released from detention and at home, the ICE doctor said simply: “Yes.”
The judicial orders authorizing the force-feeding of the three detainees are under seal, but in court, US District Judge David Guaderrama said the US government has a responsibility to act to prevent the death of anyone in custody.
Commenting on the ruling, Linda Corchado, the immigration attorney for the three men and director of Legal Services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said, “Without placing more of a burden on ICE to explore all humane forms of preserving the lives of people under its custody, justice will never reach the thousands of detained asylum seekers who remain under the sole custody of ICE.”
There are alternatives to detention, including the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) and the Electronic Monitoring Device (EMD) Program, which allow officers to closely monitor released immigrants while avoiding the unnecessary abuses that plague the US immigration detention system.
In January this year, ICE was force-feeding at least six immigrant detainees protesting their conditions of detention. An investigation published by the Associated Press at the time indicated that nearly 30 men – mostly from India and Cuba – in the El Paso Processing Center were refusing food to protest prolonged detentions, as well as allegations of “rampant verbal abuse and threats of deportation from guards.” ICE officials then confirmed that 11 men were on hunger strike in El Paso and another 4 elsewhere in the United States.
United Nations human rights experts have condemned the force-feeding of hunger striking prisoners and detainees in other contexts, and the World Medical Association (WMA) has said “the forced feeding of hunger strikers is unethical and is never justified” and that “the final decision to intervene must take into account the hunger striker’s informed decision and must lie with the physician and not with any non-medical authority.”
The hunger strikers’ doctor testified that she was ultimately requesting the order to force-feed them based solely on ICE policy.