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ICE Abruptly Transfers 4 Detainee Hunger Strikers From California to Texas, Sparking Fears of Force-Feeding

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The outside view of a large detention facility, surrounded by walls and tall fencing.
Outside the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement El Paso Processing Center, where four detainees on hunger strike in a California immigration facility were forcibly transferred on March 7, 2023. (Paul Ratje/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Update, 2 p.m. Thursday: The four hunger strikers, transferred this week from California to an El Paso detention facility, ate lunch on Thursday after reportedly being threatened with force-feeding, one of their attorneys said.

Original story, 12 p.m. Thursday: Four California detainees participating in a hunger strike to protest conditions inside a Kern County immigration jail were forcibly transferred this week to a Texas detention center, ostensibly for medical care.

Advocates for the men, who had not eaten food for 20 days, say they believe the transfers are an attempt to break up the hunger strike, which involves dozens of detainees at two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in the Central Valley. Lawyers for the hunger strikers have asked a judge to order ICE not to relocate the men or retaliate against them.

“It's evident that ICE operates as a rogue agency and does whatever they want,” said Edwin Carmona-Cruz, spokesperson for the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (CCIJ), which represents Pedro Figueroa, one of the four men who were transferred. “If they were really concerned about our client's safety, they would have paid attention and listened to his grievances.”

The transfer of the men out of the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield began Tuesday morning and was partially captured on a video call between Figueroa and attorney, Eva Umejido, who in a legal declaration said she spotted several officers in military gear walking around the dorm. Then the screen shook and the video paused but the audio stream continued, Umejido said, and she could hear Figueroa screaming, “You’re hurting my wrist,” and “I am not resisting.”

Advocates say the attorney-client phone line was inoperable for several hours while the men were being seized, so other detainees were unable to reach their lawyers and tell them what was happening.

A screenshot of a video call, showing a blurred faced of a detained man, with a glimpse of a guard in military gear in the background.
A hunger striker in the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center participates in a video call on March 7, 2023, just before he and three other men are handcuffed and removed from the dormitory and transferred to a facility in El Paso, Texas. An ICE agent in tactical gear can be seen in the background. The detained man's face has been blurred to protect his identity because he fears retaliation by ICE officials. (Photo obtained by KQED from a hunger-strike supporter)

Hours later, lawyers for the four men received emails from ICE saying their clients were “being transferred based on the recommendation by the onsite medical authority to the IHSC facility located in El Paso, Texas, for a higher level of medical care.”

On Wednesday, one of the men transferred to El Paso told advocates he was shocked and profoundly demoralized by what he called inhumane treatment.

“They dragged [one of us] out of the cell. What are we? If we’re not human beings, then what are we to them?” said the man, who declined to be identified out of fear of further retaliation. “If there’s a law that protects us to do a peaceful protest, where is that law now? I’ve never experienced anything like that. I had never been touched like that, treated like that.”

California Sen. Alex Padilla and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San José), who have called on ICE to investigate conditions at the Mesa Verde facility and the nearby Golden State Annex, asked the agency on Tuesday for information about the transfers but had not received a response as of midday Thursday, according to their offices.

Lofgren has also said she wants ICE to conduct a case-by-case review of each of the hunger strikers’ requests to be released while their cases proceed through immigration court.

“Honestly, if somebody goes on a hunger strike, it's not for a frivolous reason,” she told KQED. “To refuse all food — people don't do that for no reason. And so I take this very seriously, and I hope that the department will take it more seriously than they have so far.”

ICE did not respond to KQED’s questions about the transferred men or the other hunger strikers at the two facilities.

The hunger strike began on Feb. 17, among 84 immigrants held at the two detention centers, which are owned and operated by the private-prison company The GEO Group. The action marks an escalation of a 10-month-long labor strike in protest over $1-per-day pay for the janitorial work done by detainees. Strikers say they are also protesting poor conditions — including claims of black mold, spoiled food, sexually abusive pat-downs and the use of solitary confinement as retaliation — and are asking to be released.

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On Tuesday, when the transfers happened, 33 men were still fasting in the two facilities. But on Wednesday, the Mesa Verde hunger strikers gave up their protest out of fear they would also be shipped away, advocates said. Those participating in the protest at Golden State Annex were reportedly still refusing food.

“People are very afraid, very shaken up,” Carmona-Cruz said. “In fact, one of the individuals said that it was literally like a terror scene out of a movie.”

Carmona-Cruz said he was able to speak Wednesday morning with Figueroa, a formerly incarcerated California firefighter, and another man who was also transferred to the El Paso Service Processing Center. He said both men were weak, and distressed by the experience. And both told him that ICE officials had let them know they planned to request a court order to force-feed them and draw their blood.

According to ICE detention policy, the agency must obtain a court order to administer “involuntary sustenance” (PDF).

In 2019, in response to ICE’s force-feeding of several Indian men at the El Paso facility, the United Nations human rights office said that subjecting detained immigrants to such coercive procedures could be in breach of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

If any of the California hunger strikers needed medical care, they should have been transferred to a local hospital, not flown to El Paso, Carmona-Cruz said. Instead, he said, the men told him they were transported by van and airplane to Texas, with no medical personnel involved.

“There was no medical attention in that process. So none of the reasoning why they were being transferred makes any sense,” he said. “It’s clear to us that the facility is retaliating against Pedro under the guise of medical care.”

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