- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2020

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Friday blamed outside lawyers for fomenting a hunger strike among dozens of detainees at a California facility, and said they’ve been told at least one detainee was threatened with violence if he didn’t take part.

ICE said in a statement that “outside sources” are bribing detainees to lead the strike by sending money to their commissary accounts at Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield.

The agency also said it uncovered “correspondence where at least one detainee was threatened with physical harm by other detainees if the individual did not participate.”

The accusation was denounced by one of the hunger-strike participants who, in a statement through the lawyers assisting the strike, said ICE’s statement was “very inaccurate.”

And Centro Legal de la Raza, the legal organization, said ICE was using “racist … tropes” in saying outsiders were fueling the hunger strikes. Centro Legal compared the allegation to some of the criticism of the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

“ICE has a deeply troubling track record of deceiving the public,” Centro Legal said.

An ICE official told a federal judge this week that he was “inaccurate” when he told the judge new arrivals at the facility who were transferred from other facilities where COVID-19 had been detected were being quarantined for 14 days.

Activists are trying to win releases of detainees at the facility, arguing it’s unsafe to keep migrants in close quarters with the coronavirus pandemic.

ICE has cut its detainee population nationwide in half, compared to a year ago at this time.

The agency counted 25,421 detainees on May 30. As of June 4, it said, it had 781 detainees who were currently isolated or being monitored for COVID-19.

Two detainees who tested positive for COVID-19 have died at facilities in California and Georgia — though ICE says it’s not yet clear whether they actually died of the disease.

Mesa Verde is not listed as having any cases.

ICE says it’s taking the coronavirus seriously, including medically screening all new arrivals and using protective equipment. Surgical masks were issued to detainees at Mesa Verde beginning in April.

But Donovan Grant, a detainee from Jamaica who had been helping lead the hunger strike until his release last month, said through Centro Legal that they began the action because ICE wasn’t keeping them safe.

“We didn’t have no type [of] disinfectant, we had no bleach, we had no paper towel dispensaries, we had no soap dispensaries,” he said. “We had 100 per dorm. So it wasn’t no social distancing at all.”

ICE, in its statement Friday, said an “anonymous source” told staffers a lawyer ordered detainees to begin the hunger strike.

“Detainees also told ICE staff that outside sources may be attempting to encourage detainees to participate in these hunger strikes by providing additional funds in the commissary accounts of select detainees in order to encourage the coercing of other detainees to participate in these hunger strikes,” the agency said.

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