EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Immigration detainees paid tribute to George Floyd with a controversial hunger strike last week at a California detention center, ICE officials said in a follow-up statement this week.
When Immigration and Customs Enforcement first announced the hunger strike at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, Calif., on Friday, they alleged that detainees were being coerced — both internally and externally — into a hunger strike, and detainees reportedly said they were told that the purpose of the hunger strike was to protest the repetitive cycle of the menu.
Further investigation revealed that detainees began refusing meals as a show of solidarity for Floyd, who died while being detained by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 and whose death sparked protests against police brutality that continue across the nation. The four officers who arrested him have been arrested, with one being charged with murder and manslaughter.
Additionally, ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor said one of the detainees refused to eat because he was protesting the presence of soy in his meals.
As of Tuesday, none of the detainees are on hunger strike status.
However, ICE officials have not ruled the possibility of detainees being coerced into the hunger strike, Moor told Border Report via telephone Tuesday. Moor said the investigation is still ongoing but would not comment further.
In his initial statement Friday, Moor said “ICE has learned of potential internal and external coercion to urge detainees to refuse meals. And in a statement to Border Report on Tuesday night, Moor said ICE continues looking into potential internal and external coercion.
Moor reiterated the allegations Tuesday, that an “anonymous source” declared to staff that an attorney instructed a detainee to initiate a hunger strike; that ICE encountered correspondence that details an instance in which detainees threatened to physically harm at least one fellow detainee if they did not participate in a hunger strike; and that in discussions with ICE staff, detainees said other outside sources added funds to the commissary accounts of select detainees who coerced detainees to participate in hunger strikes.
What changed Tuesday was mention of Floyd. Calling it a “second or co-equal reason,” ICE said, “Some detainees expressed they were also on hunger strike in solidarity with those protesting the death of George Floyd.”
The allegations of coercion and stated cause of the hunger strike have come under fire from immigrant advocacy groups, including the Oakland-based Centro Legal De La Raza, which called ICE’s statement “blatantly false” and said it “mischaracterizes and defames a hunger strike led by detained immigrants at the Mesa Verde Detention Center.”
On June 4, a day before ICE issued its statement, Centro Legal De La Raza announced that dozens of detainees at Mesa Verde launched a hunger strike in honor of Floyd and Breonna Taylor and to express solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” protests.
The hunger strike was also to urge California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra to “take concrete action to save lives as the threat of COVID-19 worsens in ICE detention.”
The Center also released statement it said was provided by the detained immigrants:
“We, the detained people of dormitories A, B, and C at Mesa Verde ICE Detention Facility, are protesting and on hunger strike in solidarity with the detained people at Otay Mesa Detention Center. We begin our protest in memory of our comrades George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, and Tony McDade. Almost all of us have also suffered through our country’s corrupt and racist criminal justice system before being pushed into the hands of ICE. We are protesting the deaths of our comrades Carlos Mejia, who died in ICE custody at Otay Mesa, and Choung Woong Ahn, our friend who died in ICE custody at this detention center. We are protesting
“As legal representatives who frequently speak by phone with numerous people detained at Mesa Verde, we can attest that immigrants inside the detention center bravely organized this hunger strike of their own free will,” Centro Legal De La Raza said in a statement. “This is not the first time ICE has tried to call into question the relationship between attorneys and immigrants in detention. We strongly condemn ICE’s attempts to disrupt that relationship.”
Lisa Knox, immigration managing attorney for Centro Legal De La Raza, tells Border Report that the center has clients who are being held at the Mesa Verde facility. She sees statements like ICE’s, which refer to attorneys as agitators, as problematic.
On Tuesday, Border Report asked Moor if the hunger strike was carried out independently of any “coercion,” to which he replied, “not completely.” He couldn’t comment further on why ICE is still looking into possible coercion, only saying that some protests fit a certain pattern.
“A hunger strike is very physically demanding,” said Moor, adding that those who decide to do it know what it can do to their bodies and are “sincere” about what it is they’re protesting.
Moor did say ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion and hunger strikers will not face retaliation. However, the agency will explain the negative health effects of not eating, and it will place hunger strikers under close medical observation.
ICE considers nine the number of consecutively missed meals as the benchmark for determining whether a detainee is on a hunger strike and whether to place them in a medical facility to have their weight loss and food and water intake monitored.
Staff at the Mesa Verde facility identified 77 detainees who on June 4 did not eat dinner; 78 who did not attend breakfast the following day; and 83 who did not attend lunch, the statement said. Of those, 21 detainees made hunger-strike claims, but the rest said they just were not interested in eating facility-provided meals.
All of the 21 declared hunger strikers refused medical protocols, specifically, refusing to be weighed, the statement said.