Why They Can’t Wait: Hunger Striking To End Immigrant Detention

IM4HI and allies pray outside of Senator Padilla’s office in solidarity with hunger fasters inside Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex in April 2023.

In mid February of this year, 84 immigrants detained at two Central Valley detention facilities run by the GEO Group, the second largest prison company in the world began a hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions, expired food, lack of medical care and exploitative labor conditions.  They remained on hunger strike for weeks, until some of the strikers were retaliated against and forcibly transferred to Texas. The longest-lasting strikers managed to endure for 35 days.

Hunger strikes are a nonviolent method of social change and the immigrants detained at the two facilities, called Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, had already  tried many other means to implore authorities to address the medical neglect, sexually abusive behavior by guards, and exploitive labor practices they experienced. They filed two formal Civil Liberties Complaints, engaged in a year-long  labor strike, and had 16 members of Congress write a letter to the Department of Homeland Security calling for an investigation.  The hunger strike was the culmination of a year of organizing and protest by people detained at the facilities.  Like the many hunger strikes in immigration detention centers across the country, it was the last avenue of non-violent resistance against inhumane conditions experienced in immigration detention facilities. 

To date none of their concerns have been addressed. Instead, the hunger strikers utilizing a deeply cherished method of nonviolent resistance met retaliation and violence as they put their bodies on the line. On March 7, 2023, ICE agents and GEO staff in riot gear raided the dormitories of Mesa Verde Detention Center and physically assaulted 4 of the hunger strikers.  They were slammed  against the wall, pinned down, and one officer had their knees on the back of one of the leaders preventing him from breathing for several minutes. A week later officers repeated the same violent attack against three hunger strikers at GSA.  They were shackled, terrorized, thrown into a van and remained shackled on a plane to Texas. All of this happened to individuals who were weak after not eating for weeks.  One father of 4 children, recalled how his blood pressure rose to an alarming rate and wondered if he would ever see his children again.“We are human beings.  At the end of the day… we have families,” he said.  

The targeted hunger strikers were taken to the El Paso Service Processing Center detention center ostensibly to receive “better care,” but there they were intimidated and threatened to have tubes shoved down their esophagus.  The men decided to eat instead of facing the horrific experience of being force-fed. When  they agreed to eat they were given cold cheeseburgers and a large plate of french fries.  The El Paso detention center  failed to “refeed” them in a medically-informed way, causing Refeeding Syndrome a potentially fatal condition, and two people are suffering serious medical consequences.

We as the interfaith community have duty to prevent harm and to love our neighbors.  We as a society are accountable for violence committed by the state in our name. It is ironic that the state is detaining immigrants who are seeking protection from torture and death in their home countries, yet we subject people to another form of torture and put their lives at risk in detention.  

We implore our political leaders to call for the release of  the detained hunger strikers who can navigate their immigration proceedings outside of confinement.  We call for the closure of immigrant detention facilities which are unnecessary and inhumane. Closing detention is essential to creating a more just and humane immigration system.

Co-written by Professor Amy Argenal and Rev. Deborah Lee.