By Enrique Lopetegui
Three detainees [names changed awaiting their permission to reveal their identities] from the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos sent out letters to the Southwest Workers Union announcing hunger strikes, in protest for the condition of their detention and the uncertain status of their immigration cases.
“[My] few brushes with the law have been only for self-use of marijuana,” wrote “D.,” a 42-year-old native of Trinidad in a letter received by the SWU on February 11. “They are all minor brushes with the law. So how is it that if I broke state law in my state [Maryland] and was punished for them by my state … that DHS and ICE want to deport me for those same crimes?”
“No due process,” continued D., a legal resident since the age of 13. “Never being able to contest, object, or deny the transfers means no due process ... I do not deserve this. I am not a criminal … Whatever DHS and ICE want to do, let them do it in my home state. This is my reason for embarking … [on] this hunger strike. I will not stop until I get the proper and right results.”
“I’ve made up my mind 1000 percent,” wrote “J.O.,” a 24-year-old Jamaican legal resident since age 13, on February 28. He has been detained for eight months and claims that, after 13 bond hearings with no decision due to resetting of court dates, he was attacked by ICE guards when he took part of the last organized hunger strike. “If I don’t receive some form of relief from Texas or this facility, I refuse to eat or be forced-fed, just in case they try, as I was told by Asst. Field director M. Watkins.” [The QueBlog assumes he refers to the in-house ICE official in charge of Port Isabel, whom could not be reached for comment on Saturday]
“I used to talk to him everyday, but I haven’t heard from him in a week,” his mother told the QueBlog on March 5. “I was told he’s in the infirmary [of PIDC].”
Another Jamaican, 21-year-old “R.K.,” also accuses guards of excessive force and said that Texas pro-bono lawyers can’t assist him in court.
“I’m sick of this place and I’m fed up to the point that I don’t care anymore,” he wrote February 27. “I’m going on a hunger strike and I’m not going to break, until they either release me or move me back to New York where I can get a free legal representative … My case is a piece of cake if I had the help [of a lawyer]. I have no drugs or weapon charges, just two false impersonation [cases], which [are] minor … but I still risk being deported. I haven’t been to Jamaica since I was a kid … and I know how rough Jamaica is and I wouldn’t know what to do if I was [separated] from my family and friends.”
He started his hunger strike on March 1.
Besides being held at PIDC, the three hunger strikers have another thing in common: They all have to face judge Howard E. Achtsam, who handles all Port Isabel cases.
“Everyone in this place knows [Judge Achtsam],” D. wrote. “He never gives bail, always denies bail, and always denies change of venue. All he does is deport, deport.”
According to the Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, between 2001 and 2006 Achtsam denied 75 percent of asylum-seekers, a rate of denial 16 percent higher than the national average. During the 2004-09 period, Achtsam denied 78.3 percent of asylum claims. The national rate of denials for the same period was 57.3.
“If judges were ranked from 1 to 261 - where 1 represented the highest denial percent and 261 represented the lowest - Judge Achtsam here receives a rank of 66,” according to the TRAC page on Achtsam. “That is 65 judges denied asylum at higher rates, and 195 denied asylum at the same rate or less often.”
Jodie Goodwin, an immigration attorney in Harlingen, knows Achtsam well from her work with Cuban refugees. In 2008, she told the Houston Press that, "If you're unfortunate enough to get Judge Achtsam, that means you're probably going to get denied … I think he has got to be the only immigration judge in the country that routinely denies asylum for Cubans."
"He's pretty horrible when it comes to discretion, and pretty horrible when it comes to bonds," Goodwin told the QueBlog Friday. "I don't know if it just gives him satisfaction, or what. I've never been able to figure out why he's like that."
“We do not force-feed at ICE,” said ICE spokesperson Nina Pruneda on Wednesday. “But what do you mean by forced-feeding?”
She then sent the us ICE’s policy on hunger strikes.
"Before involuntary medical treatment is administered, staff shall make reasonable efforts to educate and encourage [the detainee] to accept treatment voluntarily,” reads the official policy, without specifying whether “involuntary medical treatment” refers to I.V.-feeding or feeding by tubes forcibly placed through the nose, as some detainees have denounced they’ve been threatened with, a system condemned by the World Medical Association.
“Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the doctor as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially,” reads the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Tokyo of 1975. “The decision as to the capacity of the prisoner to form such a judgment should be confirmed by at least one other independent doctor.”
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) respects the fundamental right of individuals to advocate for reform of our nation’s immigration laws,” reads an ICE statement released after the February 25 rally in front of ICE building in San Antonio. “Moreover, last fall, ICE announced a major overhaul of the immigration detention system to prioritize health, safety and uniformity among our facilities while ensuring security, efficiency and fiscal responsibility. These reforms include aggressive steps to increase oversight and fundamentally change the immigration detention system. ICE has taken important initial steps to change this system and is committed to finishing the job.”
“I don’t buy that at all,” Goodwin said of the statement. “I think it’s propaganda in the part of ICE. It’s just a PR move announcing that they’re going to do things differently, but the proof is in the pudding: Until I see action on the ground with actual changes, I won’t believe it. Have I seen any actual changes? No.”
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