Oct. 2, 2019 – Freedom for Immigrants and Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) in the Chihuahuan Desert are elated that Ajay Kumar and Gurjant Singh have both been released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in El Paso, Texas and are free to pursue their asylum cases free from the confines of immigration detention. They both faced over a year of prolonged detention. The men alleged that they faced due process violations, including the arbitrary denial of parole and that officials demonstrated bias in assessing their asylum claims. Throughout their time in detention, Ajay and Gurjant were supported by immigration advocates and members of the El Paso community who collected nearly 600 petition signatures to demand their release.

Their release follows a brutal hunger strike which lasted over 70 days at the El Paso Service Processing Center (ESPC). They were joined by additional asylum seekers, several of whom were deported in recent weeks. Medical professionals and advocates expressed concern that deporting these men in a weakened physical state, so soon after being subjected to force feeding could cause severe medical complications, and even death. Over the course of their hunger strike, all were subject to abusive force-feeding practices via nasogastric tubes inserted through the noses, down the esophaguses and into the stomachs. According to Ajay, the repeated attempts at inserting the tubes resulted in bleeding through his nose and mouth in addition to causing difficulty breathing. U.S. District Judge Frank Montavalo described the treatment of the El Paso hunger strikers as  “worst medical care I have seen in my ten years of practice.”

“The sacrifice that Ajay and Gurjant made for their freedom as they endured 75 days on hunger strike in addition to several weeks of painful force-feedings could have been avoided if ICE had treated these men and the many thousands of people suffering in detention with dignity and respect,” said Margaret Brown Vega, volunteer with AVID in the Chihuahuan Desert. “Detention is deadly and we know ICE intentionally inflicts harm towards people through prolonged incarceration, abuse, denial of due process and basic human rights.”

“The Trump administration’s decision to unnecessarily imprison asylum seekers who have no violent history is in direct contrast to the ideals on which this nation was founded. Detaining men like Ajay and Gurjant did not make this country any safer. Releasing people who pose no threat will eliminate the situations that cause hunger strikes,” said Nathan Craig, volunteer with AVID in the Chihuahuan Desert.

This latest incident of force-feeding is the second to occur at ESPC this year.  In January and February of this year, a group of detained asylum seekers known as the “El Paso 9” made headlines worldwide after ICE proceeded to brutally force-feed them for nearly a month. ICE’s actions moved 14 members of Congress to write a letter asking for an immediate stop to the practice of force-feeding. Shortly after, 49 members of Congress wrote to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) demanding an investigation into the agency’s use of force-feeding practices. The OIG has conducted an investigation into the matter, though the results have yet to be released.

Hunger strikes are often the only form of peaceful protest people in immigration detention have at their disposal to bring attention to the harsh and degrading conditions in ICE custody. Freedom for Immigrants has documented at least 1,396 people on hunger strike and 18 detention facilities since May 2015. In addition to the recent hunger strike in El Paso, Freedom for Immigrants documented hunger strikes at two separate facilities in Louisiana in August of this year. Many of the hunger strikers in this instance also cited lengthy periods of detention and arbitrary denial of parole as a motivation for their protest.

The World Medical Association says that force-feeding hunger strikers is “unethical” and “never justified.” Force-feeding procedures used in immigration detention are extremely painful and can constitute torture under international law. This is often done intentionally so as to pressure immigrants to break their protest.

“Nobody should have to take these drastic measures to ensure their basic rights,” said Sofia Casini, Southeast Regional Coordinator at Freedom for Immigrants. “We must address the broader issues Ajay and Gurjant’s long and painful experience in ICE detention exposed, particularly negligent medical care and attacks on our asylum system’s foundation of community care through release on bond and parole.”

Ajay and Gurjant’s release should be a wake-up call for Congress to use its authority to investigate both the use of force-feeding in ICE detention and the motivations behind the protests.

“Congress should inquire into why prolonged detention and arbitrary parole denials continue, despite federal rulings mandating that ICE grant individualized parole hearings to asylum seekers,” said Sarah Gardiner, Director of Policy at Freedom for Immigrants. “Congress should also demand that the results of a March 2019 OIG investigation into the use of force-feeding at ICE facilities be publicly released and call for an end to this inhumane practice.”