Norma Herrera, a community organizer for the grassroots coalition Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, told Border Report on Friday that 40-year-old Yoirlan Tome Rojas, of Cuba, has missed 21 meals during a week-long hunger strike that began on May 29. She says he is protesting the cramped living conditions where he fears contracting coronavirus during this ongoing pandemic.
Rojas and another Cuban man began refusing to eat last week after being told by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at the facility that Cuba will not accept them back into their country, despite deportation orders by a U.S. immigration judge.
“They feel like there’s no way to protect themselves from the virus. They’re in really crowded dorms within feet of other people. They’re sharing tablets. They’re sharing phones. When they go out to recreation they share the same equipment and they’re sharing with the same people under quarantine,” Herrera said via phone. “So they feel there’s just no way to keep themselves safe.”
The other man, 28-year-old Julio Cutino Sanchez, started eating on Monday night, Herrera said. And there are reports that other detainees also might be refusing to eat at the facility, located in Los Fresnos, Texas, about 2 miles from the Gulf of Mexico in a remote section of Cameron County.
ICE officials told Border Report on Wednesday evening there were two detainees on a hunger strike at the facility. Homeland Security measures deem a detainee is considered on a formal hunger strike only after they have missed nine consecutive meals.
Herrera said Rojas is only drinking water and told her he has no intention of eating or drinking anything else unless he is removed from the facility, or sent back to his home country. Rojas has been held at the Port Isabel facility for about a month and prior to that was held at a Georgia facility for 100 days, she said. He entered the country without documents and was first deported in 2017. He re-entered again four months ago and was apprehended and has been held every since.
“What he told me when he first started is, ‘I would rather die of hunger than die of the virus.’ So I think what he’s planning is to go the long haul,” said Herrera, adding that she has spoken to Rojas or his wife via phone at least every other day since the strike began.
I would rather die of hunger than die of the virus.”Yoirlan Tome Rojas as quoted by Norma Herrera, RGV Equal Voice Network
Herrera said Rojas told her a day after he began refusing to eat that he was placed in solitary confinement “with very little stimulation.”
ICE officials, however, told Border Report that the agency does not retaliate on those refusing to eat.
“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers. ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees, and they are under close medical observation by ICE or contract medical providers. For their health and safety, ICE carefully monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike,” an ICE official wrote in an email in response to several questions by Border Report.
ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.”ICE official
The ICE official referred to the agency’s rules regarding detainees who refuse to eat, and that stipulates the detainee will be placed in isolation and medically monitored.
The Port Isabel Detention Facility, which can hold about 1,000 detainees, currently is operating at about 70% or less of capacity “to maintain social distancing,” the ICE official said.
The facility has had four confirmed COVID-19 cases, including three cases that are currently in isolation or being monitored, according to the agency’s website.
“They don’t have hand sanitizer. They see the guards coming in and out of dorms, sometimes wearing masks and they feel there’s just no way to guarantee to keep themselves from contracting the virus,” Herrera said.
But the agency in a statement said it is employing all precautionary measures possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including reducing population size, issuance of masks, hand sanitizers and hand-washing capabilities.
“In addition to providing detainees with soap for the shower and hand soap for sink handwashing, ICE provides alcohol-based sanitizer in visitor entrances, exits, waiting areas and to staff and detainees in the secure setting whenever possible. ICE also provides soap and paper towels that are present in bathrooms and work areas within the facilities. Everyday cleaning supplies such as soap dispensers and paper towels are routinely checked and are available for use. Detainees are encouraged to communicate with local staff when additional hygiene supplies or products are needed,” the ICE official said.
So far this year there have been dozens of detainees at immigration facilities nationwide who have gone on hunger strikes. At least one detainee hanged himself in a Louisiana facility after being placed in solitary confinement, the Associated Press reported.
These latest hunger strikes at the Port Isabel facility add to a growing list of strikes in the Rio Grande Valley by detainees, according to the Valley Morning News, which cited at least five confirmed and documented hunger strikes in which DHS officials have asked a federal court for permission to forcibly restrain, feed, and hydrate undocumented detainees since last August.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.