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Weekend Read: SPLC files civil rights complaints as asylum seekers wage hunger strikes

Guards shackled Sai Mahad to a chair, placed a mask over his mouth and snaked a long tube through one of his nostrils.

Then they pushed the tube down his throat, all the way to his stomach, and – against his will – pumped a nutritional supplement into his body. The force of the tube took away his voice.

Mahad is among hundreds of asylum seekers in Louisiana immigrant prisons who have resorted to hunger strikes to protest their detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).   

But instead of allowing them to protest – a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution – ICE is retaliating by force-feeding them. Force-feeding has long been labeled unethical and unjustified. It may even violate the United Nations Convention against Torture.

Under the Trump administration, however, migrant hunger strikes and retaliatory force-feeding are sweeping the nation, particularly in Louisiana.

“Everyone has their own right to express themselves freely and has the right to bodily autonomy,” said Laura Murchie, an attorney with the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – an SPLC project that provides pro bono legal assistance to those facing deportation proceedings in the Deep South. “Hunger strikers are capable of making the decision to engage in a hunger strike, and that decision should be respected.”  

This week, the SPLC and its allies filed two civil rights complaints with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over the treatment of South Asian men such as Mahad who began a hunger strike on Nov. 1 at the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana. The complaints allege overuse of solitary confinement and medical neglect of hunger strikers. The complaints were filed with Freedom for Immigrants and Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention. 

“The depraved treatment of these men on prolonged hunger strike – undoubtedly an act of total desperation and last resort – underscores ICE’s system-wide failure to provide humane conditions and proper medical care for those under its custody,” Murchie said.

The number of immigrants held in ICE custody in Louisiana has recently skyrocketed. Between 2018 and 2019, the state more than quadrupled the number of immigrants it houses from 2,000 to nearly 9,000, holding them in eight newly converted jails.  

The growing number of detained immigrants in Louisiana’s immigrant prisons highlights the state’s successful effort to make money from its immigrant detention system. Making a profit by mass incarcerating minorities has long been a tradition in the state, even before the Jim Crow era. By indefinitely detaining asylum seekers, the state has created a rapidly growing revenue stream.

“The growing number of hunger strikes in ICE prisons across the country is no coincidence,” said Sofia Casini, the Southern regional coordinator for Freedom for Immigrants, an organization that seeks to end immigrant detention. “It is indicative of complete disbelief in a fair legal process and the lengths ICE is willing to go to indefinitely detain them.”   

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Photo by AP