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Immigration Justice

ICE will free an asylum seeker it has force-fed for 3 months in El Paso

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An asylum seeker from Nepal who has been force-fed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso for more than three months could be released from custody this week, his attorneys said. 

The asylum seeker, a 22-year-old man who asked to be identified only by the initials KC because his political opponents in Nepal want to kill him, agreed to resume eating after ICE officials promised his release if he did so, said his immigration attorney, Eduardo Beckett. He will be freed on a $10,000 bond.

KC put his life at risk “just to send a message that you cannot dehumanize asylum seekers. They’re not criminals. They shouldn’t be treated in this manner. They shouldn’t be minimized,” Beckett said.

ICE officials agreed to free KC if he ate for at least two days and then underwent two more days of medical tests, Beckett said, meaning he could be free Thursday or Friday. ICE officials declined to comment.

The decision to release KC comes two weeks after U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama criticized medical care at ICE’s El Paso Processing Center during his force-feeding, saying his treatment “barely” avoided amounting to unconstitutional punishment. An independent physician who reviewed KC’s medical files said in an affidavit for the court that he was near death around Christmas because of poor ICE medical care. 

El Paso Matters first reported on KC’s hunger strike and force-feeding March 4.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, called on ICE to end the practice of force-feeding hunger strikers.

“ICE has the discretion to use alternatives to detention; instead, the agency has demonstrated a pattern of treating asylum seekers without criminal records like hardened criminals,” Escobar said. “Like KC, individuals desperate enough to go on hunger strike have been tortured through force feeding. It’s long past due for this un-American practice to end and for asylum seekers to get access to the due process and humane treatment they are worthy of.”

Margaret Brown-Vega of AVID in the Chihuahuan Desert, part of a network of immigration detention visitation organizations, has rallied support for KC and more than a dozen other ICE hunger strikers in El Paso over the past year. She said Guaderrama’s ruling and KC’s suffering should spur changes for ICE.

Asylum seekers who have been force-fed have been treated at this medical room at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement El Paso Processing Center. The media was given a rare tour of the facility in August 2019. (Photo courtesy of Robert Holguin/KFOX)

“I hope that ICE rethinks how they handle these situations in the future. I don’t see a reason for them to go to such lengths to expend so many resources to continue to detain someone who’s willing to put their body on the line like this for their freedom,” she said.

Court records show that KC entered the United States in El Paso in May 2019 and requested asylum. He has been detained by ICE since shortly after entering the country. An immigration judge in November ordered him returned to Nepal, but KC is appealing that ruling. It’s not known when the Board of Immigration Appeals will rule on his case.

By eating a small meal Monday morning, KC broke a 110-day hunger strike that began on Nov. 19. He demanded that ICE allow him to be free on bond while pursuing his asylum case. ICE responded by getting a federal court order on Dec. 6 to involuntarily hydrate and feed him.

For most of the past three months, KC has been force-fed through a nasogastric tube that runs through his nose and esophagus into his stomach.

Guaderrama ruled on Feb. 27 that ICE could continue force-feeding KC, but criticized the agency’s medical treatment and ordered officials to take additional steps to protect the hunger striker’s health. 

The judge quoted extensively from the affidavit by Dr. Parveen Parmar, a medical professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on health care in detention facilities. She reviewed medical records at the request of KC’s attorney and said that he came near death on Dec. 23 because of ICE’s poor medical treatment.

Guaderrama wrote that ICE and detainees on hunger strike were locked in a contest of wills where “it only takes one misstep, either from the Government or the detainee on hunger strike, for the detainee to be at a critical state and die.”

El Paso attorney Joe Veith, who volunteered to represent KC in Guaderrama’s court, said he believes ICE decided to free his client because of the judge’s ruling and the public scrutiny that followed.

“The court was very critical of ICE and how they managed KC and I think that plays into the decision-making for ICE. And the ever- increasing risk associated with having somebody force-fed for this long is also something that I would imagine is being taken into consideration by ICE,” Veith said.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that ICE force-feeding of detained asylum seekers may violate the UN Convention Against Torture.

The World Medical Association has said force-feeding detainees by physicians and other health-care workers “constitutes a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.” The American Medical Association has made similar statements.

KC is the fifth man known to have been released by ICE officials in El Paso in the past year after engaging in extended  hunger strikes. Two Indian cousins were freed in April after 74-day hunger strikes; two other Indian men were freed in September after hunger strikes of 76 days.

Several other men gave up their hunger strikes during force-feeding by ICE. Most have since been deported.

All of the hunger strikers were protesting what they considered unnecessary detention while they pursue asylum claims.

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award. Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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