For immediate release: June 4, 2020

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Detained immigrants launch hunger strike urging Gov. Newsom to protect lives of Black immigrants, others in ICE detention amid COVID-19 threat

Hunger strike opens in honor of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, 
Expresses solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter protests

Bakersfield, CA and statewide –  Dozens of immigrants detained at ICE’s Mesa Verde Detention Center launched a Hunger Strike today, urging California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra to take concrete action to save lives as the threat of COVID-19 worsens in ICE detention. 

The group stated: “We begin our protest in memory of our comrades George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, and Tony McDade. Almost all of us have also suffered through our country’s corrupt and racist criminal justice system before being pushed into the hands of ICE.” The hunger strike comes after the Governor failed to respond to a set of demands from detained people and advocates to use his executive power to help save lives. The full statement from community members participating in the hunger strike reads:

We, the detained people of dormitories A, B, and C at Mesa Verde ICE Detention Facility, are protesting and on hunger strike in solidarity with the detained people at Otay Mesa Detention Center. We begin our protest in memory of our comrades George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, and Tony McDade. Almost all of us have also suffered through our country’s corrupt and racist criminal justice system before being pushed into the hands of ICE. We are protesting the deaths of our comrades Carlos Mejia, who died in ICE custody at Otay Mesa, and Choung Woong Ahn, our friend who died in ICE custody at this detention center. We are protesting the inadequate medical care in all ICE detention facilities. We are also protesting the lies that ICE has told in court to federal and immigration judges about the conditions of these facilities. What they have done is not nearly enough to prevent the virus from endangering us, and we demand instant relief from these conditions. It is still impossible to practice social distancing within this facility, and ICE and Geo Group’s practices are not protecting us from this virus. We will continue our protest until further attention is brought to these conditions, and until the Governor and the Attorney General of California begin an official investigation into all ICE detention facilities in California.

Incarcerated immigrants and advocates are increasingly calling out the ways that policing and incarceration, by design, have criminalized Black people and communities of color – including Black immigrants and other immigrants of color. A 2016 report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration found “while Black immigrants make up only 7.2% of the noncitizen population in the U.S., they make up 20.3% of immigrants facing deportation … on criminal grounds.”

Immigrants detained at Otay Mesa in San Diego, the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in any ICE facility, expressed support for the hunger strike, with several joining in. 

Anthony Alexandre, who was previously on hunger strike for 12 days at Otay Mesa, spoke about his experience as a Black man in America by phone. “I don’t have a country. I can’t go back to Haiti because it’s very scary to go back there, and I can’t be here. They’re killing African Americans. They don’t even want me here. So what do I do now?” Mr. Alexandre needs access to the phone to seek legal help and would not have phone access in solitary, where he would almost certainly be taken in retaliation for hunger striking, so he is not participating in the current hunger strike but supports it.

Fonua, a man from Tonga, told advocates over the phone: “I’m on hunger strike, and I’m asking for the Governor to come investigate over here, do what they’re supposed to do, release us, but they don’t want to release us from over here.” Expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, he decried that: “ Blacks are dying at the hands of the police.”

Coalitions across the state have been urging concrete action for months, highlighting the Gov’s legal authority and the moral imperative to act. Yet the Governor’s office has refused to take action and only provided empty words.  Community demands of Gov. Newsom and AG Becerra include: 

  • Stop all transfers from California prisons and jails to ICE detention
  • Lead an independent investigation and hold detention centers and their for-profit operators accountable for putting lives at risk during the pandemic.
  • Stop all expansion of detention in California state. 

This comes as the total number of COVID-19 cases confirmed in ICE detention reaches 1,579, with cases now confirmed in 3 of the 5 detention centers in California. All three are operated by private, for-profit companies. At Otay Mesa, the CoreCivic Corporation also detains people on contract for the US Marshall Service. These community members are not reflected in ICE’s data, but are at equal risk of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, a parallel crisis is unfolding in the state’s prison system, with cases now at 1,984. Moreover, transferring people from one tinderbox of infection to another worsens the crisis; in addition to calling for a halt to transfers to ICE, immigrant advocates are also endorsing broader calls for decarceration. 

In ICE detention, like other forms of incarceration, people are kept in closely together by design, making distancing impossible. Detained people have also denounced the lack of masks and soap. Medical neglect makes it easy for COVID-19 to spread, which puts both detained people and the surrounding community at risk. ICE systematically deprives thousands of immigrants of liberty each day, with rampant medical neglect. Yet prison companies are shamefully turning a profit off of the suffering of community members — at the expense of community well-being and resources.