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ICE alleges outside coercion as Mesa Verde detainees resume hunger strike

Mesa Verde strikers (copy)

In this file photo, strikers at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center form a heart in the detention center yard.

Detainees at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center have restarted a hunger strike. However, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says external entities are coercing the detainees to strike, along with other issues.

The detainees’ actions resume a hunger strike that was initially started in April in response to what detainees called lax coronavirus measures being practiced at the facility. The strike was eventually called off, but has begun again after detainees say ICE hasn’t done enough to stop the spread of COVID-19 within the detention center’s walls.

As the hunger strike began again, detainees also said they were initiating their actions in honor of George Floyd and others killed by law enforcement officers.

ICE says some individuals have been misled about the hunger strike’s cause. The federal agency said an anonymous source told staff that an attorney had instructed a detainee to initiate a hunger strike and detainees had said attorneys were providing funds for some strikers to encourage them to strike. ICE also said some detainees have reported they were told the purpose of the strike was to protest the repetitive cycle of the meal menu. The agency says at least one detainee was threatened with physical harm for not participating.

But Asif Qazi, 31, a strike participant who moved to the United States from Bangladesh when he was 6, says he has nothing to hide.

“I have no reason to lie because lying won’t get me released from here,” he said before bringing up issues related to ICE’s handling of the coronavirus. “It is not possible to social distance within this place. And if someone has the virus — which someone could possibly have because they bring in new detainees every few days without quarantining them — they could be bringing in the virus to us.”

Qazi, 31, said he’s in ICE custody after being convicted of an ammunition charge for which he didn’t serve time in jail. He said he was a professional ironworker with two daughters.

He said ICE has spoken loudly about enacting COVID-19 measures, but the agency’s action has fallen short.

The continual transfer of new detainees into Mesa Verde, along with the inability to socially distance within the facility, are concerns for strikers. They demanded Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra begin an official investigation into all immigrant holding facilities in the state.

So far, no coronavirus cases have been identified at Mesa Verde.

On Thursday, ICE reported 77 detainees didn’t eat their facility-provided dinner. By Friday, the number climbed to 83 who refused lunch.

“In hunger strike cases, while ICE considers nine consecutive missed meals to be a benchmark for determining the need to place detainees into a medical facility for observation, it is not the only factor in determining if detainees are on hunger strike,” ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor wrote in a statement to The Californian. “Someone who is not eating food because they are on hunger strike will lose weight daily. Medical staff are required to measure and record detainee weight for the initial evaluation and at least once every 24 hours during a hunger strike. All 21 declared hunger strikers have refused hunger strike medical protocols, specifically they have all refused to be weighed.”

Three of Mesa Verde’s four dorms have agreed to participate in the strike, Qazi said. While skipping the formal meals provided by the facility, some of the strikers still purchase food through the commissary.

Priya Patel, an attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, said it’s still powerful for some of the strikers to continue eating through the strike.

“They view it as an act of resistance to refuse meals from their captors and instead choose to pay exorbitant prices to engage in this form of protest,” she said. “They are dipping into their own pockets to buy basically snacks and live off of incredibly expensive snacks that have zero nutritional value really for (them) whatsoever.”

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.

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