The U.S. government has suddenly stopped force-feeding all nine Indian immigrants on a hunger strike inside an El Paso immigration detention center, according to local reports Thursday.
The dramatic reversal comes as public pressure was mounting on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to halt the controversial practice, which involves feeding detainees through nasal tubes against their will. Last week, the United Nations human rights office said the force-feeding of immigrant hunger strikers at the facility could violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
On Wednesday, 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 Thursday. The next day, all force-feeding at the detention center near the El Paso airport stopped, according to reports in the El Paso Times and Texas Monthly.
"This is a win for us," said Louis Lopez, who is representing Malkeet Singh and Jasvir Singh in the case heard Wednesday in El Paso. Both men 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. But force-feeding, which began under court order earlier this year, has not previously been reported, and advocates involved said they weren't aware it had happened before.
In federal courtroom Wednesday in El Paso, U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama heard from Dr. Michelle Iglesias about how men detained in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's El Paso facility are restrained and have feeding tubes pushed through their noses. The judge asked specifically 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 Geneva-based office's statement echoed concerns raised by 14 Democratic lawmakers who have asked ICE for more information about nine Indian men who are being force-fed through nasal tubes. The men went on hunger strike to protest their treatment. Last month, ICE began non-consensual feeding and hydration after a federal judge issued a court order allowing the practice.
"ICE is committed to preserving the lives of those in its custody and maintaining orderly detention facility operations," the agency said last week in response to the U.N.'s statement. "For their health and safety, ICE closely monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike. Medical staff constantly monitor detainees to evaluate whether the hunger strike poses a risk to the detainee's life or permanent health."