by Cindy Knoebel
For many, Sundays are a day of relaxation and gatherings with friends and family. Perhaps there's a playoff to watch on TV, a new movie just released, a new restaurant to try, a trail to hike, a road to bike.
But last Sunday, Michelle Graffeo, a Freedom for Immigrants volunteer, chose instead to visit Arjun*, who has been detained at LaSalle Ice Processing Center for nearly a year. It’s a five-hour drive, round trip.
Arjun, who came to the U.S. seeking asylum, was on the 73rd day of a hunger strike.
All have been subjected to the tortuous process of forced-hydration and force-feeding.
He is among a group of five South Asian men in the GEO-operated facility in Jena, Louisiana. All have been subjected to the tortuous process of forced-hydration and force-feeding.
Arjun, 22, was beaten and left for dead in India due to his religious beliefs. Now, he told Michelle during her visit, "I believe God will protect me."
I will not resume eating till the time I haven’t been freed, no matter how long it takes ...
Michelle says his blood pressure is dangerously low; last she heard, it was 60/53. In a statement, Arjun wrote, “I want my freedom [...] I will not resume eating till the time I haven’t been freed, no matter how long it takes, I will face every difficulty to gain my freedom. I have only one demand that I want freedom and I want to fight my case from outside.” During a visit with Sofia Casini, Freedom for Immigrants’ Southern Regional Coordinator, Arjun said that despite having friends in the U.S. willing to house him, he hadn't applied for bond because he believed the immigration system was so flawed in Louisiana that bond was impossible to receive. He had never seen a single person in either detention center he was imprisoned in released on bond.
Another hunger striker Michelle had hoped to visit that day was 37-year-old Sameer*, who she's visited a half dozen times in the past. He has a wife and two children back in India. "He seemed completely bewildered," Michelle says. "He couldn't understand why he's been in 'prison' for almost a year since he hadn't done anything wrong." The last time she saw him, two Sundays earlier, he was in a wheelchair. "He looked like a dying man," Michelle says, her voice breaking. "His coloring, the circles around his eyes ... he had a pressure band around his head for migraines and he wasn't strong enough to visit with for very long. He was holding a Styrofoam cup, which he used to spit bile into." But Sameer had been hospitalized, and when Michelle tried to visit him there, she wasn't allowed to see him.
"He told me he was prepared to face certain death, whether here or back in India if he got deported."
Sameer left India after enduring multiple beatings for his political affiliation. "He made it clear to me that he would never go home," Michelle says. "He told me he was prepared to face certain death, whether here or back in India if he got deported."
Two of the five hunger strikers are being force fed, two are drinking nutritional drinks voluntarily, and one man has only received forced hydration but no nutrition at all. According to Michelle, the force feedings take place three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, twice a day through a nasal tube.
"Sameer has an infection in his throat," Michelle says. "The doctor said he's contracted hepatitis C and that his liver is failing. One of the last things he said to me was 'I feel like a dead man, whether I stay in prison or go back to India.' And he reiterated that he was adamant he would not break the strike."
"It's heartening to see how communities of people and organizations have come together to uplift them."
Sofia Casini noted that all five men have friends or family members who have written sponsor letters and are ready to house them if they are released. "We're working hard to line up the medical and legal resources these men will need when released," she says. "It's heartening to see how communities of people and organizations have come together to uplift them."
Yesterday, Freedom for Immigrants issued a press release noting it has filed two complaints with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) on behalf of the five men, demanding DHS address the systemic civil rights violations the men have faced while in ICE custody.
The first CRCL complaint is in regard to "the failure of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to respond to the release requests of five men on hunger strike, some of whom have not eaten for over 74 days and risk irreversible physical damages or even death."
The second complaint, submitted in collaboration with Physicians for Human Rights, addresses the significant delays in receiving critical medical records from ICE despite repeated requests submitted by an FFI affiliated volunteer.
"My fear is that ICE will actually allow these men to die to make examples of them."
"In the beginning I didn’t understand it [the hunger strikes] that much, says Michelle. "Now I understand they're not doing it for themselves but to address a systemic issue. But watching them waste away … It’s extremely emotional for me." She pauses. "My fear is that ICE will actually allow these men to die to make examples of them."
*names changed for privacy purposes
Cover art by Jen Bloomer, https://radicistudios.com