At Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey, at least six people who are being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have entered their 25th day of a hunger strike. The detainees are protesting inhumane conditions which make them vulnerable to coronavirus. They are demanding to be released so that they can await the outcome of their deportation hearings from outside of jail. Four of the detainees are now unconscious, and protesters are ramping up pressure on the jail to release them. Nearly 100 demonstrators gathered outside the jail on Sunday afternoon, and people have been protesting daily in solidarity with the detainees since November 27.
Conditions at Bergen County Jail are deplorable. Although it has not yet experienced a coronavirus outbreak, crowded living conditions with insufficient access to hygiene makes the facility extremely vulnerable. Detainees claim that the heating has been shut off, their medical needs are not addressed, and they have to resort to drinking water from toilet bowls due to being denied drinking water.
These dire and outright dangerous conditions in jails and detention facilities across the country predate both the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration, and Democrats and Republicans alike have upheld them. The ACLU reports that despite the huge increase in immigration detention in recent years, “there are no regulations or enforceable standards” for medical and mental health treatment, access to phones and other means of communication, legal services, or library materials. As a result, immigrants are routinely denied even these basic rights. Detainees at Bergen County Jail have complained that the jail is rat- and mold-infested, leaving detainees susceptible to myriad diseases and infections.
With this in mind, fears of a deadly coronavirus outbreak are warranted. Over 7,000 ICE detainees have been infected across the country, and research has shown that detainees are infected at 13 times the rate of the general population. These numbers are likely much higher due to lack of transparency, low testing rates, and abysmal compliance with health guidelines. Detainees in Alabama were put in solitary confinement for merely asking to be tested.
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This is far from the first hunger strike among ICE detainees. Since the pandemic began in March, around 2,500 people have refused food as part of at least 42 different hunger strikes, up from 1,600 over the last four years. These strikes have ramped up as detainees rightfully protest the dangerous conditions that make facilities a hotbed of coronavirus infection. Resistance has been met with brutal repression, including pepper spray and rubber bullets, while officers have subjected hunger strikers to forced feeding and hydration.
Bergen County Jail is one of several jails in New Jersey that have lucrative contracts with ICE to house detainees at their facilities. Between 2015 and 2018, ICE sent over $150 million to three counties in New Jersey, all of them controlled by Democratic politicians. Bergen County Jail received over $12 million from ICE in 2018 alone. Local governments see ICE contracts as a source of much-needed revenue, and the private corporations which serve the facilities profit handsomely from detainees being locked up for as long as possible. These perverse incentives encourage counties across the United States to fill their jails with ICE detainees, including those who are merely awaiting the verdict of their deportation trial.
Workers must show solidarity with these detainees on hunger strike and demand their release. But we cannot stop there: ICE is a violent, oppressive arm of the state that, like the police, must be abolished. The agency works tirelessly to brutalize Black and Brown people, and during the coronavirus pandemic, it has continued detentions and deportations, putting lives at risk. We must also demand the decriminalization of border crossing, a moratorium on deportations, and full rights for migrants.