Force-Fed Asylum Seeker Released From Federal Custody

(CN) – An asylum seeker who was force-fed by federal immigration authorities in Texas amid a months-long hunger strike was released from government custody Friday after agreeing to end the strike and begin eating voluntarily, his immigration attorney said.

The man, an immigrant from Nepal, was originally detained after crossing the southern border illegally near El Paso last May, according to court documents. An immigration judge ordered him deported back to Nepal in November, but he had remained in detention pending an appeal.

Protesters march outside ICE’s El Paso Processing Center in June 2018. (Rudy Gutierrez/The El Paso Times via AP, File)

El Paso attorney Eduardo Beckett, who represented the man in immigration proceedings, said his client was released Friday morning after posting a $10,000 bond per an agreement reached with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“When I told him ‘once you pay, you’re ought of here,’ you should’ve seen the change [in] his face,” Beckett said. “I got to see him after he ate, and it was like night and day.”

The man was set to travel to Austin to live with family while his immigration appeal plays out, Beckett said. Courthouse News is not identifying the man at the request of his attorneys and other immigration advocates watching his case, who say he could face reprisals in his home country if his name was revealed.

The case prompted concerns from immigrant advocates and even the courts about the quality of care ICE provides detainees in such medically delicate situations.

In February, Beckett urged the local ICE field officer director to release the man, saying in a letter that ICE medical staffers had engaged in “cruel, painful, degrading, and unethical behavior” in force-feeding him against his will.

An ICE spokesperson referred questions about the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio, which previously said it had no comment and did not respond Friday to a request for an update.

The hunger strike was notably longer than the similar hunger strikes of two Indian men who were also force-fed while in immigration custody in El Paso last year. Those men were both similarly released from ICE custody in the fall.

The Nepalese man’s case drew particular scrutiny from a federal judge in El Paso, who in February concluded the government had “barely” established that ICE’s handling of the man’s medical care as he was being force-fed did not amount to punishment.

U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama, in reviewing the government’s legal requests to continue the force-feeding, expressed doubts about ICE’s characterization of an incident just before Christmas where the man was rushed to a local hospital after his breathing rate plummeted while having his blood drawn.

ICE claimed the man had simply fainted from an “emotional response” to the needle, but Guaderrama called that explanation “highly unlikely.” The man’s medical expert in the case, who reviewed medical records from his time in ICE custody, went even further, saying he had in fact almost died.

The judge ultimately allowed the force-feeding to continue in an order in late February, but not before highlighting multiple “inconsistent and carelessly charted evaluations” in the man’s medical reports.

“While these oversights, by themselves, do not indicate that the ICE policy as applied to respondent amount to punishment, these oversights suggest the ICE medical staff’s inattention to the details of respondent’s medical condition, and thus, to the ICE policy,” Guaderrama wrote.

Joe Veith, an attorney who handled the Nepalese man’s legal fight against the force-feeding in federal court, said while that part of his court battle was unsuccessful, the judge’s comments were still impactful.

“I believe that the quality of care was increased because he gained a ton of weight,” Veith said. “I imagine that this order will apply even more pressure on ICE to show that they’re providing the care that’s expected by the courts.”

Margaret Brown Vega, an advocate with the group AVID in the Chihuahuan Desert who has closely watched the man’s case, wasn’t so optimistic.

“I anticipate that not much will change,” she said. “I think unfortunately, if someone is on hunger strike in a facility and no one on the outside knows about it, I don’t think they’re going to get the adequate care, which is really dangerous.”

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