Bernie Sanders responds to hunger-striking asylum seekers

Flickr user Ken Mayer

Detained immigrants around the country— including 13 in Colorado, according to their supporters— have launched a hunger strike aimed at securing their release as asylum seekers. They are also demanding better conditions and an end to a federal mandate that fills detention center beds with immigrant detainees.

The issue hit the 2016 presidential campaign today when Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders held a round table discussion with undocumented immigrants at his campaign office in Washington.

There, Sanders heard from a Bangladeshi immigrant and political activist named Jahed Ahmed who recalled how it took a hunger strike to spring him from a detention center when he came to the United States seeking asylum. In Bangladesh, he’d witnessed the death of a friend at the hands of the ruling party, Ahmed said, and had to flee his country.

“As the court cases were coming up, I started to be targeted by activists associated with the government,” he told Sanders through a translator. He said he was forced to leave Bangladesh, crossing more than a dozen different countries, through deserts, jungles and the ocean. When he got to the U.S. border and claimed asylum he was placed in a detention facility for more than 10 months, he said.

“There was no way for us to properly fight our cases while we were in detention,” he said. “When we started to see some of us get deported, we launched our hunger strike, and it’s because of that hunger strike that I was let go and I am here. And today I bring to you the voices of all the people that continue to be [detained].”

Currently, more than a dozen immigrants being held at the privately run GEO Group Detention Center in north Aurora, Colorado, are refusing to eat, says Jennifer Piper, the Denver-based interfaith organizing director of the American Friends Service Committee, a national Quaker group.

“The detainees on strike hail from countries around the world, including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Togo, and Burkina Faso,” she wrote in a news release this week. “They have been detained for between seven and twenty-three months, and many of them came to the U.S. fleeing persecution in their countries of origin.”

Piper said those on hunger strike in Colorado are doing so in solidarity with nearly 150 others at eight detention centers around the country. They’ve issued a list of demands, and are part of a movement called #Freedomgiving Hunger Strikes that began over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Tomorrow, on Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 10 a.m., a vigil is planned outside the detention center at 3130 Oakland St. in Aurora.

“We’re going to hold a rally with diverse immigrant communities and citizen communities, and we will hopefully be able to give a better update on the conditions of the hunger strikers and the treatment they have received,” Piper told The Colorado Independent.

In an email to The Independent, GEO Group took umbrage to any claims of poor conditions. “GEO’s facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. Facility, provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary,” said Pablo E. Paez, vice president of corporate relations for the company.

“Additionally, GEO’s facilities provide office space for ICE personnel, immigration attorneys, immigration court judges, non-governmental organizations, and other constituent groups who have unfettered access to each facility,” he said. “All of GEO’s facilities under contract with ICE are audited and inspected by the agency on a routine and unannounced basis.”

During his round table discussion today, when Sanders was asked if he’d visit facilities where immigrants seeking asylum have gone on hunger strikes, the Independent senator from Vermont indicated he would try.

“Given my schedule between Congress and the campaign, I can’t promise you when and where it would be, but it is something that I am interested in doing,” Sanders said.

Asked if, as a U.S. Senator, Sanders would inquire to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Department of Homeland Security about current deportations of asylum seekers and the consequences of those deportations, Sanders said he would.

“Asylum is a very, very historical and important part of civilized societies,” he said. “What asylum is about is saying that if the person cannot live in their own country because of political oppression or death threats, other countries around the world— including the United States— should be prepared to provide a secure home to protect their life. It’s something that I believe in.”


Photo credit: Ken Mayer, Creative Commons, Flickr