Asylum Seekers from Cameroon Launch Hunger Strike in ICE Detention

Asylum Seekers from Cameroon Launch Hunger Strike in ICE Detention

Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, Pine Prairie, Louisiana
March 3, 2020 – end date unknown

Forty-three asylum seekers facing indefinite detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) organized a hunger strike that lasted at least ten days in protest of their conditions of confinement and the dysfunctional asylum process they face.

The detainees, all of whom are English-speaking refugees from Cameroon, released a declaration of their hunger strike which was shared with Perilous Chronicle. The strikers stated their motives as being “based on gross human rights violations by ICE New Orleans Regional Field Office…and Judge Scott Laragy of Oakdale Immigration Court.”

The declaration further stated, “We are beginning an indefinite hunger strike on 03/03/2020 to express our frustrations, for our lives are in danger back home in Cameroon.”

According to an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who is contact with the detainees, all of the hunger strikers were transferred to solitary confinement in retaliation for their protest. The detainees then decided to end the strike. In an email, the attorney described the retaliation the strikers faced:

43 of them were put in segregation to break up the strike, and while in seg several of them reported that they were not given water and that they were forced to drink out of the toilet. This is unrelated to COVID-19, although the lack of basic sanitation is especially striking in the context of an exploding pandemic.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment.

Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center is a privately run ICE detention Facility owned by GEO Group. The facility has been operating under contract with ICE since 2015, according to the GEO Group website.

One of the main motivations for the strike is the dysfunctional asylum process and the unwillingness of the immigration courts to take their asylum claims seriously. “The judge is bent on sending us all back to be killed by our government,” the strikers wrote. In some cases, the strikers claim, immigration judges have used court appearances as an opportunity to pressure asylum seekers into voluntarily signing deportation orders before their case is even heard.

“Judge Scott Laragy dismisses almost all the evidence presented by us before him to support our cases despite the country report of Cameroon. Forcefully asking arriving aliens to accept voluntary deportation even without hearing the applicants claim.”

“We are frustrated and downtrodden as we have no one to our rescue except you. In other detentions and states Cameroonians are being given parole and bond. We doubt if this state, Louisiana, is not in the United States or whether they don’t have the same immigration laws like other states,” the strikers wrote.

Detainees have also said that the harsh conditions at the facility are designed to force immigrants to opt for deportation rather than continue to suffer in detention. “We are in a facility where the thirty (30) days given by law to anyone who is under the appeal and may want to appeal his case, is rather used by ICE to traumatize and mount pressure on the appellant to sign deportation documents.”

According to the International Crisis Group, in Cameroon, “violence has claimed around 3,000 lives, displaced half a million people within Cameroon, compelled another 40,000 to flee to Nigeria, deprived 700,000 children of schooling in their home areas and left one in three people in the Anglophone regions in need of humanitarian aid.”

The hunger strikers described the conditions that caused them to flee Cameroon and seek asylum in the US:

Over the last four years, Cameroon has been the focus of a nation sliding into a genocide in Africa from what started in late 2016 as legitimate grievances by the minority English speaking lawyers, teachers, students and civil society over the prolonged marginalization, discrimination, suppression and oppression by the French majority government under Pres. Paul Biya who has ruled the country for the last 38 years. Peaceful protests turned deadly when the government military resorted to violence, shooting at peaceful protesters, wounding, killing, arresting and detaining many. The situation has deteriorated and we were targeted by the Cameroon government and we fled the country to seek for protection in the United States. We fear returning to Cameroon because the government continues to kill, arrest, detain many, burn villages and destroy properties targeting the male youths and others.

The hunger strike was launched just one week after 80 female asylum seekers from Cameroon staged a sit-down strike at the T. Don Hutto ICE Facility in Taylor, Texas. In a letter to Grassroots Leadership, an immigrant advocacy group, the detainees described the conditions of medical neglect and indefinite detention they were protesting:

Some of our sisters are sick and not being well treated. Others are running mad due to trauma and stress. One person is on a wheelchair who needs surgery and many others with serious health conditions who also need surgery but are be neglected. The medical department is very rude to us, they tell us we’re pretending to be sick even when someone is in serious pain, they laugh and mock at your medical condition, they give wrong medication to patients and they don’t attend to you when you really need medical attention.

Grassroots Leadership estimates that at the time of the protest there were approximately 300 female asylum seekers from Cameroon at the T. Don Hutto ICE Facility. At least 150 of those detainees were transferred to the Laredo Detention Center in apparent retaliation for their protest.

The hunger strikers at Pine Prairie have declared their strike “indefinite”, raising concerns over whether ICE will seek approval to force feed the strikers in federal court. In a recent case, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups called attention to the force feeding of Sai Mahad, an asylum seeker who resorted to a hunger strike in response to indefinite detention by ICE. Mahad is one of several hunger strikers force-fed by ICE in the last year.

According to the SPLC, “Force-feeding has long been labeled unethical and unjustified. It may even violate the United Nations Convention against Torture.”

The strike also follows another protest at the Pine Prairie facility in August, 2019 in which 115 immigrant detainees who had been on hunger strike for over 5 days were “tear gassed, shot at with rubber bullets, beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and blocked from contacting their families or attorneys,” according to the immigrant advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants. The detainees were also transferred to solitary confinement in retaliation for their hunger strike, a tactic the prison has repeated with the current strike.

A detainee at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center shows a wound from a rubber bullet shot by guards following a peaceful demonstration (Photo Source: Freedom for Immigrants).

In early December 2019, another act of protest by detainees erupted in Louisiana. Detainees at Winn Correctional Center, a privately run jail in Winn Parish held a protest against their confinement. The detainees refused to go in from the yard and held sheets and towels inscribed with messages such as “Libertad.” Guards deployed pepper spray against a group of 50 detainees to end the protest.

Louisiana has become a hub of immigrant detention under President Trump and also a hub of immigrant resistance. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Between 2018 and 2019, the state more than quadrupled the number of immigrants it houses from 2,000 to nearly 9,000, holding them in eight newly converted jails.”

(Image Source: The Times-Picayune)

Pine Prairie Hunger Strike Declaration, March 3, 2020. [transcription]

Pine Prairie Hunger Strike Grievance List, March 3, 2020. [transcription]

Following a Protest, ICE Transfers Dozens of Asylum Seekers to an Isolated Laredo Facility“, Texas Observer, March 2, 2020.

A cry for help: a letter from Cameroonian women detained at T. Don Hutto“, Grassroots Leadership, March 6, 2020.

Desperate asylum seekers ‘starving for justice’ in immigrant prison hunger strikes across Louisiana“, Southern Poverty Law Center, February 12, 2020.

Louisiana becomes new hub for immigrant detention under Trump“, Associated Press, October 9, 2019.

As number of immigrants behind bars soars under Trump, Louisiana becomes detention hub“, The Times-Picayune, October 19, 2020.

Article published: 3/12/2020
Header photo source: GEO Group