The dramatic reversal came Thursday as public pressure was mounting on ICE to halt the practice, which involves feeding detainees through nasal tubes against their will. Last week, the United Nations human rights office said the force-feeding of Indian hunger strikers at the facility could violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
Earlier this week, a U.S. district judge said the government had to stop force-feeding two of the detained Indian immigrants, but warned that if their health started to decline he would consider ordering force-feeding again, their attorney said. On Thursday, all force-feeding at the detention center near the El Paso airport had stopped, according to ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa.
"This is a win for us," said Louis Lopez, who is representing Malkeet Singh and Jasvir Singh, two detainees who are Punjabi Sikhs in their early 20s. "They have a First Amendment right to protest." Detained immigrants have sporadically staged hunger strikes around the country for years, protesting conditions they face while seeking asylum. ICE said Thursday there were a total of 12 detainees refusing food, nine from India, three from Cuba. Force-feeding, which began under court order earlier this year, had not previously been reported, and advocates involved said they weren't aware it had happened before.
In a federal courtroom Wednesday in El Paso, U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama heard from Dr. Michelle Iglesias about how men detained in the El Paso facility are restrained and have feeding tubes pushed through their noses. The judge asked whether they had some other way they could protest, and sought details about the Singhs' physical condition.
"What are the physiological and psychological effects of allowing a hunger strike to continue unabated by force-feeding?" he asked. In addition to Guaderrama, U.S. District Judges David Briones, Philip R. Martinez and Frank Montalvo at the El Paso courthouse have issued orders for force-feeding in recent weeks.
Those orders are secret, under seal, because they contain "highly sensitive and personal medical information," Montalvo told The Associated Press in a letter declining a request to unseal the orders. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said last week the office views force-feeding as potential "ill treatment" that would go against the convention, ratified by the United States in 1994.
The statement by the Geneva-based office echoed concerns raised by 14 Democratic lawmakers who have asked ICE for more information. Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who toured the El Paso Processing Center and met with the hunger strikers two weeks ago following the initial AP reports, found them "deeply traumatized" and frail. She said she asked them why they were refusing food.
"It was so sad," she said. "They told me 'We would rather die in America than be deported.'" Friday afternoon, about 30 supporters of the hunger strikers gathered for a protest along a crowded street near the ICE processing center close to El Paso's airport. While some passing cars honked in support, other drivers rolled down their windows to yell obscenities, chanting "USA! USA! USA!" or "He's still your president."
Protestors chanting "Free El Paso Nine" hoisted red and white kites painted with forks fashioned to look like prison bars being grasped by human hands, a symbol, organizers said, of people being force-fed.
"We don't force feed human beings," said one of the organizers, Elizabeth Vega, a grandmother from Las Cruces, New Mexico. "That's torture and we know it's torture. I don't care what a federal judge says."
Mendoza and Burke reported from San Francisco.