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ICE seizes four California hunger strikers and transfers them to Texas

The detainees launched their still-ongoing strike Feb. 17 to demand release from immigration custody and, barring that, improved conditions from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group.

SAN FRANCISCO (CA) — Four hunger strikers being held at an immigration detention center in Bakersfield, California have been forcibly removed to another detention center in El Paso, Texas. Thirty-three people remain on the hunger strike.

The immigrants filed a request for a temporary restraining order Tuesday after officers dressed in riot gear and carrying batons and pepper spray seized the four men. U.S. District Judge Trina Thompson denied the request on a technicality late Wednesday but gave the plaintiffs until March 17 to file for a preliminary injunction — this time serving all the defendants in the case, which apparently did not occur with the TRO request.

But the original filing does detail a frightening and violent morning at Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield.

A man identified as R.H.M. described the scene in the TRO request, stating that officers with GEO Group, Inc., the Florida-based company which operates immigration detention centers across the country, entered Dorm C screaming “Get on the floor! Get on the floor!”

Dressed in camouflage military uniforms with helmets and bullet proof vests, they seized four hunger strikers — Pedro Figueroa–Padilla, Jose Hernandez, Raymundo Noe Dominguez Vidal, and Roberto Carlos Franco Guardado — and told them they were being arrested for medical reasons, despite the fact there were no medical personnel on hand, R.H.M. said.

He has been detained at Mesa Verde since January 2022.

“What happened this morning was shocking and terrifying,” R.H.M. continued. “I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. It was disturbing to see my peers get treated like that — see them getting hurt, yelling in pain, calling for help, and instead getting knees in their backs and necks. It was heartbreaking. I see it as clear retaliation and punishment for what my peers and I are doing: speaking out about the unjust and abusive treatment and conditions at Mesa Verde.”

The immigrants at Mesa Verde said they have been subjected to ongoing harassment by the center's staff, including threats to throw them into solitary confinement, taunting, pressure to quit the strike, and cranking up the air conditioning in their dorms to uncomfortably cold temperatures despite this winter’s unusually cold conditions.

The detainees launched their still-ongoing strike Feb. 17 to demand release from immigration custody and, barring that, improved conditions from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO.

“Since the hunger strike began, defendants have denied or restricted plaintiffs’ access to the law library, family visitation, church, yard time, and recreational activities,” the immigrants said in a complaint filed February 23.

“Defendants’ retaliatory actions go far beyond the measures that would be necessary to accomplish legitimate institutional goals. Instead, defendants’ actions are intended to punish individuals for their peaceful protest and chill First Amendment-protected expression,” they said.

The plaintiffs also detailed hostile attitudes on the part of facility staff and said that GEO staff are “selectively targeting plaintiffs with threats of discipline and displaying increasing contempt for them.”

Medical staff at Mesa Verde have refused to offer any care to the hunger strikers, despite ICE requirements to do so, according to the complaint. If the strikers agree to leave the dorm where they are all currently housed, they’ve been told they could then have access to medical care, the complaint says. Instead, however, hunger strikers fear they’ll be thrown into solitary confinement.

“Although plaintiffs have consented to waive their privacy rights and repeatedly requested that medical staff check their vital signs inside the dorm — something defendants at Mesa Verde have done during previous times of emergency, including the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic — defendants have instead conditioned plaintiffs’ access to medical care on their agreement to leave Dorm C,” the immigrants said.  “If a plaintiff does not agree to leave Dorm C for this purpose, they are marked as ‘refusing’ medical attention.”

The four hunger strikers are now in El Paso, according to emails sent to the ACLU by their attorneys. Attorneys for ICE stated in an another email that they do not intend to seek court orders for force feeding at this point, said Minju Cho, an attorney with the ACLU.

The pressure being exerted on the hunger strikers has ranged from physical abuse to denial of access to attorneys, said R.H.M., who said he and other immigrants at Mesa Verde are regularly subjected to sexually abusive pat downs which are doled out at every opportunity. As immigrants at Mesa Verde began speaking out last year against conditions at the facility, that suddenly changed, he said.

“Suddenly I was receiving pat-downs going to and from medical, coming back from the chow hall, the library, yard, everywhere. I thought it was an accident at first and that maybe the officers didn’t do it on purpose. But it continued to happen. The way staff was touching my body was humiliating to me and felt retaliatory. Because of my past trauma, I also felt very triggered by them.”

That the raid are apparently taking its toll.

“After what happened today, I’ve thought about ending my hunger strike,” R.H.M said. “I am feeling very fearful for my safety and the safety of my peers at Mesa Verde. I know if I continue to speak up about the injustices here, I will be targeted, just like my four dormmates who were forcibly arrested and taken away today. To see them get their arms twisted, to hear them screaming, to see three officers on top of them, grabbing their legs, sticking knees into their backs, heads, and necks — it’s scary and really discouraging. I witnessed the consequences of our speaking up today, and that frightens me. It makes me scared to speak.”

Authorities at Mesa Verde did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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