Immigration and Customs Enforcement has ended the force-feeding of hunger strikers protesting their detention at its El Paso detention facility, a spokeswoman told Texas Monthly on Thursday. But the judicial orders allowing ICE to force-feed nine El Paso hunger strikers in recent weeks remain shrouded in secrecy.
“No hunger strikers housed in El Paso are currently being fed pursuant to court orders at this time. Medical staff at the facility continue to closely monitor the health and vital signs of all the hunger strikers to insure they continue to receive proper medical care,” ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said in a statement. She said 12 people at the detention center—nine from India and three from Cuba—remain on hunger strikes.
ICE began force-feeding hunger strikers at the El Paso detention center in mid-January after they stopped eating in late December and early January. By the end of January, eleven men detained in El Paso were on hunger strikes and six were being force-fed, ICE said after The Associated Press reported on the hunger strike. Supporters of the hunger strikers said the number being force-fed had grown to nine, all Sikh men, members of a religious minority in the Punjab region of India who have long faced persecution. The men, some who have been in ICE custody more than a year while fighting deportation, were protesting the length and conditions of their detention.
The hunger strikers’ case has drawn international attention. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern that the force-feeding could violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture. The American Medical Association is opposed to the practice of force-feeding hunger strikes in prison, a stance ICE physician Iglesias acknowledged in her testimony Wednesday. The hunger strikers are getting legal support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
ICE announced the end of the force-feeding in response to questions from Texas Monthly after a federal court hearing Wednesday in El Paso revealed that nasogastral feeding tubes had been removed from two of the men. The hearing for Malkeet Singh and Jasvir Singh was the first time the government has discussed the hunger strike publicly in any detail—although parts of the hearing were conducted in private. The ICE physician overseeing the force-feeding, for example, Dr. Michelle Iglesias, testified behind closed doors about the condition and status of the two men. She then testified at a public court session in clinical terms about the hunger strike process, starvation and force-feeding.
The status of the immigration cases for the hunger strikers wasn’t immediately available. But given their lengthy stay in ICE custody, many of the main may be nearing deportation.
Louis Lopez, the lawyer representing Malkeet and Jasvir Singh, let slip a key detail in the closed part of the hearing just before court adjourned. When U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama of El Paso asked him if he had anything further for the court, Lopez said he needed some clarification “now that the tubes are out.” Guaderrama quickly stopped him and said, “You’re not supposed to say that. That’s the closed portion.”
Though the issue wasn’t further addressed, Guaderrama seemed to hint at it early in the hearing when he said he would order force-feeding “only as long as needed.” He said Iglesias could determine that the hunger strikers’ medical condition had stabilized after prolonged force-feeding, allowing her to remove the nasogastric tubes used to feed them. If the men continued their hunger strike and their condition deteriorated, he could issue another order to resume force-feeding, Guaderrama said.
Throughout the two-hour hearing, Guaderrama expressed his discomfort with the case. “I don’t know much about this subject because I’ve never seen it before,” he said at the outset.
But Guaderrama also made it clear he believed ICE had the legal authority to force-feed the hunger strikers. He read from a 2006 decision by Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. “If prisoners were allowed to kill themselves, prisons would find it even more difficult than they do to maintain discipline, because of the effect of a suicide in agitating the other prisoners. Prison officials who let prisoners starve themselves to death would also expose themselves to lawsuits by the prisoners’ estates. Reckless indifference to the risk of a prisoner’s committing suicide is a standard basis for a federal civil rights suit,” Posner wrote in a Wisconsin case that involved an inmate who alleged he was denied food as a form of punishment. Even though prisons could refuse to serve food to an unruly inmate, it would be required to force-feed an inmate bent on starving himself, Posner wrote.
All court records about the force-feeding of Malkeet and Jasvir Singh have been sealed. It’s not clear if they’re related, but Singh is a near-universal last name for Sikhs. Their names don’t appear in a search of the federal court case system. An online record search for other cases involving people named Singh in El Paso federal courts in 2019 also comes up blank, even though ICE has acknowledged getting court orders for the force-feeding of at least six detainees.
Using case numbers for Malkeet and Jasvir Singh from Guaderrama’s calendar for Wednesday, Texas Monthly found 15 sequentially numbered court cases that have been sealed by El Paso federal judges around the time of the hunger strike. Angelo Guisado, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said it wasn’t clear why Malkeet and Jasvir Singh’s cases received a hearing on Wednesday but no similar hearings are scheduled for other hunger strikers.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Guaderrama said the court records needed to remain sealed because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, a 1996 law that provides for extensive confidentiality of medical records. He also cited HIPAA in closing the courtroom when Iglesias testified about the medical condition and treatment of Malkeet and Jasvir Singh. He told Lopez that if the men signed a document waiving their HIPAA rights, he would consider unsealing the case and making records public. “There is no secret agreement to keep these from you or anyone else,” Guaderrama told Lopez.
Guaderrama re-opened his court to the public for testimony from Iglesias on the physical and psychological effects of hunger strikes, as well as the mechanics of force-feeding. Staff members for U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar of El Paso attended the hearing. Iglesias said ICE considers a person to be on a hunger strike after refusing nine consecutive meals, which covers a three-day period. She said people on hunger strikes frequently show physical weakening and signs of depression two to four weeks in to the hunger strike.
Iglesias said she will seek a court order for force feeding when she sees a sharp drop in magnesium, phosphate and potassium levels, among other health indicators. Once a judge approves force-feeding of a hunger striker, she’ll insert a nasogastric, or NG, tube that runs through the nose, down the esophagus and into the stomach. If a hunger striker is uncooperative for feedings, they are placed in a hospital bed in a seated position with their arms and legs placed in soft restraints.
She said throughout the hunger strike process, including after force-feeding begins, she tries to talk them into resuming eating. “I tell them we will cater a feast for them of food they’d find appealing,” Iglesias said.