Covid-19 Hunger Strikes Sweep Migrant Detention Centers

Jailed migrants are fighting a battle for their lives.

Maurizio Guerrero September 1, 2020

A protester stands outside Otay Mesa Detention Center during a “Vigil for Carlos” rally on May 9, 2020 in Otay Mesa, California. Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

TACO­MA, WASH. — Despite the risks to his health amid the pan­dem­ic, Daniel López is lan­guish­ing in immi­grant deten­tion because his pres­ence makes mon­ey for the pri­vate prison com­pa­ny GEO Group. 

The potentially catastrophic impact of Covid-19 in jails has intensified the feeling of abuse among many detained immigrants. It has also spurred an uprising that mirrors growing political and social movements across the United States.

To them, we are just com­modi­ties for their busi­ness,” López, a 32-year-old immi­grant from Baja Cal­i­for­nia, Mex­i­co, says. He is speak­ing from the North­west Deten­tion Cen­ter in Taco­ma, Wash., a jail-like facil­i­ty owned by GEO Group, the cor­po­ra­tion that receives more tax­pay­er dol­lars for immi­grant deten­tion than any oth­er Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) contractor.

We are forced to work here,” López says. One dol­lar per day.” He describes it as a trap.” The meals, often rot­ten, come in small por­tions; if detainees want to eat some­thing else, they have to work to pay for it. Every­thing they sell is over­priced,” López adds.

The poten­tial­ly cat­a­stroph­ic impact of Covid-19 in jails has inten­si­fied the feel­ing of abuse among many detained immi­grants. It has also spurred an upris­ing that mir­rors grow­ing polit­i­cal and social move­ments across the Unit­ed States.

Near­ly 2,500 peo­ple have joined Covid-19-relat­ed hunger strikes in deten­tion cen­ters nation­wide since March, accord­ing to Deten­tion Watch Net­work, a grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion that demands the abo­li­tion of immi­grant jails. By com­par­i­son, between 2015 and 2019, a total of 1,600 peo­ple in ICE deten­tion went on hunger strike, accord­ing to Free­dom for Immigrants.

In June, peo­ple detained at the Mesa Verde Deten­tion Facil­i­ty in Bak­ers­field, Calif. — oper­at­ed by GEO—orga­nized what Cen­tro Legal de la Raza con­sid­ers the first Black Lives Mat­ter protest inside an ICE jail. Accord­ing to Cen­tro Legal, the legal ser­vices agency rep­re­sent­ing the strik­ers, immi­grants endured a cor­rupt and racist crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem before being pushed into the hands of ICE.”

All these strug­gles are con­nect­ed,” says Dey­ci Car­ril­lo López, a legal assis­tant at Cen­tro Legal.

Near­ly 70 detained peo­ple launched a sev­en-day hunger strike at the begin­ning of July to warn of the dan­gers of Covid-19 at Mesa Verde, after a nurse at the facil­i­ty test­ed pos­i­tive. (At least one per­son detained test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus dur­ing the hunger strike.)

I think [the detainees are] orga­niz­ing [on] the inside and work­ing with each oth­er to see what next steps they can take to actu­al­ly push GEO to lis­ten to them,” Car­ril­lo López says. They are think­ing about new strategies.”

Since ear­ly May, all women, and a num­ber of vul­ner­a­ble men, have been released from Mesa Verde. Over­all, more than 1,400 migrants around the coun­try have been released to avoid expos­ing them to Covid-19, accord­ing to ICE.

Yohanne Euge­nio, a 38-year-old born in the Philip­pines, has been locked up in the North­west Deten­tion Cen­ter in Taco­ma for 17 months. I’ve lived in the Unit­ed States for 35 years and I’ve nev­er, ever been treat­ed this way, even when I was incar­cer­at­ed,” Euge­nio says. It’s like they do not care.”

Euge­nio has a painful cough and wor­ries she has Covid-19. She says her con­di­tion wors­ened after offi­cers start­ed using a strong dis­in­fec­tant. Deten­tion Watch Net­work (DWN) has iden­ti­fied the use of HDQ Neu­tral, a dis­in­fec­tant known to cause bleed­ing, burns and pain, in ICE facilities.

ICE fig­ures list 3 731 total Covid-19 cas­es and three deaths among 22,405 detained peo­ple as of July 21. The Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress sug­gests those num­bers could be gross­ly under­count­ed. As the cri­sis at San Quentin prison shows, an uncon­trol­lable out­break inside a jail is a real concern.

Relo­ca­tions of peo­ple with Covid-19 have also spread the virus. The Far­mville Deten­tion Cen­ter in Vir­ginia, with two Covid-19 cas­es in late April, expe­ri­enced a surge after trans­fers of peo­ple from Ari­zona and Flori­da. As of July 21, Far­mville is the hard­est-hit immi­gra­tion facil­i­ty in the U.S., with 315 Covid-19 cases.

Bár­bara Suarez Galeano, orga­niz­ing direc­tor at DWN, com­pares the trans­fers to bio­log­i­cal war­fare.” Those detained suf­fer mul­ti­ple lev­els of aggres­sion and abuse piled onto each oth­er,” she says.

ICE is also known to use rub­ber bul­lets, pep­per spray and brute force to harass, intim­i­date and sub­due any orga­niz­ing inside deten­tion cen­ters,” Suarez Galeano writes in a July 14 op-ed. Oth­ers have doc­u­ment­ed force-feed­ing and forced hydra­tion in response to hunger strik­ers, meth­ods con­sid­ered inhu­mane by Unit­ed Nations experts.

Resis­tance inside con­tin­ues as cor­po­ra­tions prof­it by keep­ing peo­ple in jail as long as possible.

We need to be with our fam­i­lies, espe­cial­ly in times like these, when they could get sick,” Daniel López says. If we were released, we would be able to help them. The biggest risk is keep­ing us here.”

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