Activists stand with black tape covering their mouths, holding large empty plates and posters that read “Not one more” and “We stand with Shoeb.” One simply says “solidarity” in large black letters. They are standing outside of the Denver Contract Detention Facility operated by the GEO Group, Inc. for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office in Denver.
“We are standing today in solidarity with asylum seekers around the country who are on hunger strike,” says Jennifer Piper from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) from a microphone.
According to the AFSC, 17 people within the Aurora facility started a hunger strike on Monday Nov. 30. According to its main point of contact, a man named Shoeb, 14 of the strikers are from Bangladesh and four are from Pakistan. Piper says all had claimed asylum upon entering the U.S. and all have been in detention for at least a year.
“They were all placed in solitary confinement and they were all facing sleep deprivations,” Piper says. “There are between four and 10 of them who are continuing their hunger strike and still facing those conditions where the guards come by and rattle the doors, knock on the doors while they are falling asleep.”
Maria Giordano visited Shoeb on the night of Dec. 8 at the GEO facility and confirmed that four men are still on hunger strike. Shoeb broke his strike on Friday, Dec. 4 after being told he was the only one left still refusing to eat. He turned 29 while on hunger strike last week.
Shoeb arrived in the U.S. on Nov. 13, 2014 immediately claiming asylum after crossing the border in Texas. Shoeb is from Bangladesh, where he was a community organizer for the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), one of the two major political parties in the country. When the BNP lost power, Shoeb says he was captured and tortured. He was able to escape “amidst bullets,” Giordano says, and call his family from a friend’s house. His family told him officials had already been to the house looking for him.
“He never went home after that,” Giordano says.
BNP is an Islamic nationalist party, according to its website, and has been designated by the Department of Homeland Security as a Tier III terrorist organization, although the organization is not listed on the U.S. Department of State designated foreign terrorist organizations list.
“I think it’s for where we’re from and because of our religion. We are Muslim, but we are not terrorists,” Shoeb told Giordano about his prolonged detention and denial of asylum, which he is currently appealing. He also told Giordano that a Russian detainee was released on bond after only two months in the Aurora facility, an option Shoeb has never been given.
“‘Without a doubt I would get killed’ is what he said,” Giordano says Shoeb answered when asked what would happen if he returns home. “He said that basically they have been checking on him with his family to see where he is. They know that he is gone. He is afraid that as soon as he were to go through the airport they would know who he was and just take him and kill him immediately. He’s pretty convinced that he wouldn’t even see his family.”
Shoeb and others at the detention center heard about other South Asian and East African detainees around the country, who began a hunger strike the day before Thanksgiving, on the news. They decided to start their own strike on Monday, Nov. 30.
“He had told me that they were planning on starting on Monday, and when I went in to visit him on Tuesday they said he was in [segregation] and couldn’t take any visitors,” Giordano says.
“How he explained it to me [is that] somebody from GEO came and talked to them on Monday to see what was going on. Then on Tuesday an ICE supervisor interviewed all of the men who were on strike individually. Basically called them in and told them ‘don’t do this.’ And from the interview, each of them got taken to solitary confinement.”
On Wednesday, Giordano recounts for Shoeb, he was taken to medical because he wasn’t sleeping and having troubles with his arm from a previous injury. He also described guards knocking on his door and waking him up every time he was trying to sleep. ICE officials also threatened Shoeb with force-feeding, Giordano says.
Carl Rusnok, ICE director of communications for the central region, says there were 11 hunger strikers at the Aurora facility last week and as of Dec. 8, only one remained. According to ICE policy, hunger strikers are reported to the local ICE field office director and are closely monitored for health concerns. They are also “isolated for close supervision” when “medically advisable.”
ICE denies any sort of retaliation against hunger strikers and claims “any allegations of abuse are categorically false and entirely without merit,” according to an ICE official speaking on background.
“It may be that there are no ICE officials involved in the sleep deprivation given that it’s a for-profit company and the guards are the ones who are employed by GEO and are the ones waking people up,” Piper responds. “I don’t have any reason to believe that people would be making that up but I’m also not there.”
ICE contracts with the publicly traded company, GEO Group, Inc., formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corp, to run the detention facility. The for-profit facility receives approximately $160 a day per detainee and can house 525 people every day. “That’s our tax money going to holding people, keeping them apart from their families, and from the safety that they come seeking in this country,” Piper says.
Plus, detainees are reporting similar abusive circumstances at four other facilities across the country, she says. “It’s interesting to me that folks that are in different facilities and aren’t able to communicate with each other are reporting and experiencing similar kinds of activity.”
The hunger strikers in Aurora joined a total of 149 asylum seekers around the country at 10 different detention facilities, according to Piper. The hunger strike began the day before Thanksgiving at two different detention centers in California and one in Alabama by men from South Asia and East Africa, mostly from Muslim-majority countries. It quickly spread to the other facilities, including the one in Colorado.
“These are all people who followed the process for asylum and it’s up to the local immigration office whether they choose to hold them indefinitely or let them go,” Piper says. “Some of the people who are on hunger strike have received final orders of deportation but their countries won’t issue them documents, which also means there is no end point for them. There is no point at which they will be released into the U.S. or released back into their home countries.”
This latest protest on the Front Range follows a string of hunger strikes this fall by persons from primarily Muslim-majority countries at ICE detention facilities in Texas, Louisiana and California. In October, 54 asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan refused food for a week at the El Paso Processing Center. Since they ended their strike, 11 of the strikers have been released on parole according to advocacy groups.
All the hunger strikers list four demands: To end all detentions and deportations; to end the detention bed quota issued by Congress; to end indefinite detention; and to improve conditions of detention. In an effort to meet Congressional immigration detention goals, ICE, under the Department of Homeland Security, detains approximately 34,000 immigrants each day. This policy is often referred to as the “bed quota.”
Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders met with a former hunger striker from the El Paso facility on Monday, Dec. 7 as part of his Families First live stream conversation.
Through a translator, Jahed Ahmed told Sanders he watched as his best friend was killed in front of him in Bangladesh. A self-described political activist, the hunger striker said the government targeted him as well. His home and small shop were ransacked. “I didn’t want to leave my home but I was forced to leave my country,” he told Sanders.
He then described crossing 14 or 15 different countries before reaching the U.S. at the Mexican border. “When I came to the border I claimed asylum and found myself in detention for 10 months and 13 days,” he said.
“It is because of that hunger strike that I was let go,” he continued. “I bring to you the voices of all the people who continue to be in detention.”
Sanders promised to look into the issue, and presidential candidate Martin O’Malley has pledged his support for the hunger strikers. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as well as all the Republican candidates have not responded to the issue.
According to spokesperson B. Loewe with the national Not One More Deportation migrant rights campaign, there are currently 60 detainees from South Asia still on strike across the nation. “Obviously, the intimidation and torture tactics that ICE has been using and the isolation of people, especially in Aurora, has made it hard to keep count,” he says.