‘Our basic needs are not being met’: Hunger strike continues at ICE detention facilities

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The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building is seen in Washington, D.C. Photo by Shutterstock.

The Central Valley is where lots of food is grown, but right now, dozens of men are on a hunger strike there. They’re migrants detained at two privately-run Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities — one is in Bakersfield, the other in McFarland nearby. 

“Our basic needs are not being met,” says Oscar Rodriguez Picazo, one of the strikers. “We're requesting ICE to release us.”

Detainees say preceding the hunger strike, which began on February 17, there was a 10-month labor strike against living and working conditions at the two facilities, Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex. Detainees work eight-hour shifts — scrubbing bathrooms, doing laundry, and cutting hair — and are paid a dollar a day by GEO Group, the company that owns and operates the facilities. 

“Some of those same detainees waging the labor strike began refusing all meals,” explains Farida Jhabvala Romero, labor correspondent for KQED. “It was more than 75 people who started the hunger strike, 42 detainees were on hunger strike as of this morning.”

The hunger strike came about after detainees claimed conditions did not improve in the facilities, despite filing formal complaints with multiple federal agencies. Jhabvala Romero says detainees felt like this was a “last resort.”

“You're really putting your health at risk when you don't eat for several days or weeks. … At least one detainee has been taken to the hospital with numbness in his hands, stomach pain, dizziness,” she says, citing information from the nonprofit Pangea Legal Services.

Five of the detainees are now suing ICE and GEO Group for allegedly retaliating against them for going on a hunger strike, which is a method of protest other detainees at ICE-run facilities have used before.

“Depriving people of the only two hours a day that they get to spend in fresh air and sunlight … depriving people of family visits … necessary hygiene items … access to the law library, which they need to pursue their immigration cases — there's no explanation for this other than punishing them for speaking out,” claims Bree Bernwanger, senior attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. 

The lawsuit also claims temperatures in dormitories are being kept at low levels, food is being left on detainee pillows to entice them to break the strike, and solitary confinement is threatened as possible punishment. 

ICE denies the claims of retaliation, and has its medical personnel checking on the hunger strikers frequently. GEO Group, the multinational corporation at the center of this particular hunger strike, denies substandard conditions exist in their facilities, and that retaliation also is not happening. The detainees are also critical of the very detainee labor model that GEO Group uses to operate the facilities.

“One of the main arguments is that … operators like GEO are engaging in wage theft by not following California's minimum wage, which is now $15.50 an hour,” says Jhabvala Romero. “They're saving on labor costs by using this cheap detainee workforce to maintain the facilities.”

Congress set the minimum amount of one dollar daily pay for detainees, but that amount hasn’t increased since the 1970s, says Jhabvala Romero. Lawsuits are challenging that, but courts have yet to rule on whether federal contractors like GEO have to follow a state’s minimum wage law for its detainees. In addition, detainees have not yet been accused of a crime and are pending immigration hearings, making the issue of treatment and wages a complicated legal question.

“This detention is legally classified as civil, not criminal,” says Jhabvala Romero. “And so it should not be punitive. But in reality, detainees are often locked up in facilities that they say operate just like prisons and jails.”

California passed a law in 2019 to eliminate privately run detention and prison facilities. The law was struck down by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2022 with respect to facilities operated on behalf of ICE. The court ruled on the grounds that the law violated the Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause,” which precludes states from interfering with federal laws.