BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Clanging forks against metal plates outside Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters, activists urged the leading Democratic candidates to step up for the more than 150 detainees on a hunger strike inside U.S. immigration prisons.
Coinciding with a congressional hearing in Washington on the backlog of immigration cases, about 20 protesters gathered Thursday outside the Brooklyn building that houses the two-floor office space where the former secretary of state has run her presidential campaign since April this year.
Behind metal barricades set up for crowd control at 1 Pierrepont Plaza, the protesters unfolded a table with seven empty plates, each representing a facility run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement where detainees have been refusing food to fight for their freedom. Detainees launched their strike on Thanksgiving eve, after seeing their cases languish between seven months to two years.
Some who succeeded in winning their release came to the demonstration to share their stories, along with religious leaders, community organizers and peace activists during at the 1 p.m. lunch hour.
The first chant that day went out to the candidates: “Clinton, Sanders, what do you say? What about human rights today?”
None of the chants or demands went out to Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who is badly trailing in the polls.
A representative of the Queens-based protest organizers DRUM, short for Desis Rising Up & Moving, called that an oversight.
“The fact that there are hunger-strikers at seven detention centers at the very same time indicates that there is a crisis in our immigration centers, and we need a response to that crisis,” DRUM’s Fahd Ahmed said in a speech outside the lobby of the 19-story building.
To listen to the protesters, the Clinton campaign deployed Latino outreach spokeswoman Lorella Praelli, hired this spring from the ranks of United We Dream, a heavyweight among organizations representing the children of undocumented immigrants.
Bangladeshi immigrant Aminul Islam, who was recently released from a center in El Paso, Texas, spoke through a translator about how he fled political persecution through several countries before landing in the United States.
“I saw someone die right in front of my eyes, and I too had to fight with death to get here,” Islam said.
On the road to deportation proceedings after an immigration judge denied his initial bid for asylum, Islam said he launched his protest.
Clinton’s campaign has not released any formal statement beyond the words of her representative Praelli, a Peruvian immigrant herself who promised to talk to the demonstrators more about their experiences and demands.
“I hope that you know that Hillary Clinton has been speaking about the need to have a humane immigration system that values and ensures the dignity and safety of people,” Praelli told the crowd before peeling back into the building.
While Clinton has only released the broad outlines immigration platform, her key challenger from the left unveiled an ambitious plan late last month to “dismantle inhumane deportation programs and detention centers.”
Sanders vowed to promote alternatives to detention, close private prisons and allow thousands of immigrants to unite with their families.
Through his Latino outreach director Arturo Carmona, Sanders issued a statement that he remains “committed to a humane and secure immigration policy.”
“These aspiring Americans should not be criminalized, subjected to dehumanizing solitary confinement or indefinitely detained,” Carmona added. “The United States must meet our international responsibilities to families seeking refuge.”
Even though both campaigns sent their Latino outreach representatives to relay their messages, the organizers devote the bulk of their activism to addressing the unique burdens faced by African and South Asian immigrants.
Desis, the first word in DRUM’s name, is a Sanskrit word for residents of the Indian subcontinent.
The organization’s spokesman Ahmed said in a phone interview that he personally knows of at least six cases in which bail for South Asian and African immigrants had been set for between $30,000 and $50,000, far above the average bond of $3,000 to $7,000 in such cases.
More alarmingly, a Bangladeshi immigrant named Rumon Ahmed reported an attempt to break his hunger strike through forced catheterization.
“If we know that if we are sent back to our country, we will be killed by those who oppose us anyway, why do they want to send us back?” Ahmed asked in an audio recording transcribed by DRUM. “After four days of hunger strike, they forcibly brought me to the hospital, and put a big needle to collect blood, and forced a catheter through my urine tract to my bladder in order to torture me. What did I do to deserve this? If I go back I will die. I came here to save my life.”
Detainees held at the Krome Detention Center in Miami, Fla., joined the hunger strikers late Thursday night, Ahmed said in a phone interview.
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