U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has confirmed there are now nine men — up from six earlier this week — being force-fed under court order in a detention center in El Paso.
One of the hunger strikers, a 22-year-old man from India who called The Associated Press on Friday, described being dragged from his cell three times a day and strapped down on a bed. He said a group of people force-feed him by pouring liquid into tubes pushed through his nose.
The man, who AP is identifying only by his last name Singh out of family concerns for his safety, stopped eating more than a month ago. In mid-January, ICE obtained court orders to begin non-consensual hydration and feeding, and so for weeks they've had nasal tubes inserted in their noses and IVs in their arms.
The AP first reported on the force-feeding Wednesday.
"They tie us on the force-feeding bed, and then they put a lot of liquid into the tubes, and the pressure is immense so we end up vomiting it out," said Singh. "We can't talk properly, and we can't breathe properly. The pipe is not an easy process, but they try to push it down our noses and throats."
Speaking through an interpreter, Singh said he has lost 50 pounds (23 kilograms) since he began his hunger strike. He said he is refusing food to protest guards' unfair treatment of him and other detainees from Punjab. He said they are being denied bond while detainees from other countries were allowed out.
In a statement, ICE said it 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.
For their health and safety, ICE closely monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike," the agency said.
The AP's reports on the force-feeding have garnered international headlines and angry responses from policymakers and human rights advocates.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, visited some of the men after the initial reports, tweeting afterward that their situation is "unacceptable."
"El Paso and our country are better than this," she said.
Human Rights Watch published a dispatch Friday describing force-feeding as "cruel, inhuman and degrading."
Hunger strikes among immigrant detainees are uncommon, and court orders authorizing force-feeding are rare, said an ICE official, noting that once force-feeding is approved, detainees have in the past given up their hunger strikes. The official spoke anonymously because the official had not been authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Although the agency doesn't keep statistics on this, attorneys, advocates and ICE staffers who AP spoke with did not recall a situation at an immigration detention site where it has come to this.
Detainees, their attorneys and advocates have said that up to 30 men have been on hunger strikes over the last month. According to ICE, 10 detainees from India and Nicaragua who are being held at the El Paso detention site have refused nine consecutive meals — the immigration agency's benchmark for when to start calling refusal to eat a hunger strike.
Last week AP heard from Cubans in the facility who also said they were refusing food.
Another four detainees are on hunger strikes in the agency's Miami, Phoenix, San Diego and San Francisco areas of responsibility, agency spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said. She did not say whether they were being force-fed.
Singh said he came to the United States in August of last year along with his cousin, seeking to escape violence in his home state of Punjab in India. Court records show he was arrested for illegally entering the U.S. near El Paso and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. His uncle, Amrit Singh, said that his asylum claim had been denied.
A volunteer who has visited the facility said that the men have been requesting pillows to elevate their heads when the liquid nutrition is administered through their noses because the material backs up and causes them pain.
Nathan Craig, a volunteer with the nonprofit group Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention, told the AP that one of the men he spoke with has a thyroid condition and has not been receiving his medicine.
"Both of the men I spoke to personally have visible trouble walking, they are frail and they are receiving by IV liquids, something like three times a day," Craig said after an earlier visit.
Singh said they're not getting the help they've requested.
"We keep asking them on a daily basis for the pillows, but we don't have the pillows yet," Singh said. "They don't give us wheelchairs, despite the fact that we are so weak. They drag us on our feet."
The force-feeding of detainees through nasal tubes at Guantanamo Bay garnered international blowback. Hunger strikes began shortly after the military prison opened in 2002, with force-feeding starting in early 2006 following mass refusals to eat. There have also been high profile cases in a high security federal prison.
The International Red Cross, American Medical Association and World Medical Association condemn force-feeding hunger strikers as unethical.