While families prepare Thanksgiving feasts for today, immigrant detainees at Theo Lacy in Orange are on a hunger strike. Others at the James A. Musick facility in Irvine also joined in before authorities swiftly transferred them to Theo Lacy. About 37 people, mostly South Asian, launched the fast aimed at ending detentions last night. Similar actions are underway at Alabama's Etowah Detention Center and Otay in San Diego with immigrant detainees declining their dinner meals on Thanksgiving eve.
The demands of the hunger strikers are clear: They are calling for an end to all detentions and deportations. Immigrants also want ICE bed quota and indefinite detention policies nixed. The hunger strike follows a similar action by South Asian asylum-seekers at the holding facility in El Paso in October that inspired others across the country despite retaliation by authorities.
"Musick actually started during the daytime," Fahd Ahmed, director of the New York-based Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) tells the Weekly. "Officers moved in and threatened the detainees." Four ended their hunger strike two hours in, but others who stayed committed got immediately transferred over to Theo Lacy.
Washington D.C.'s Detention Watch Network outed Theo Lacy in a 2012 report as one of the worst immigrant holding facilities in the nation. 300 groups followed up with a call to close it down along with the others listed. Among the three currently on hunger strike, supporting activists on a conference call today noted Etoweh as having the poorest conditions, including spoiled food.
Many of the hunger strikers are from Bangladesh, including Shahidul Islam at Theo Lacy. He fled political persecution from the ruling Awawi League after being threatened at gunpoint with his father. Islam had been harassed many times before for being a member of the opposition Bangladesh National Party.
"Imagine the Republican Party putting all the Democratic Party leaders under house arrest and also attacking anyone who is identified with the political party, says Chaumtoli Huq, an expert on Bangladesh politics, during the conference call. "Anyone, at this point, who expresses any disagreement with Awawi League finds themselves at the hands of street violence or the use of the legal apparatus to hold them in contempt."
Pushed to the breaking point, Bangladeshi immigrants are coming to the United States through the Mexican border, a new migratory channel for them. If detainees at Theo Lacy like Isam get deported back to Bangladesh there is cause for concern.
"Bangladeshis who identify politically as BNP or have spoken in opposition to the current political party, if returned, face serious and severe harm to themselves," Haq added. "We really need to understand the urgency that is the length to which they are going to leave Bangladesh."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2