Omar Arnoldo Rivera Martinez fled to the United States from his native El Salvador to escape persecution and violence from organized gangs that use their power to extort, kidnap and kill with little consequences. He traveled thousands of miles over unforgiving terrain to seek asylum in the U.S. But what he found here was more violence and depravation – not on the streets, but in a U.S. immigration detention facility.
Omar, 37, was arrested by immigration agents at the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year and detained at Adelanto, a detention center in San Bernardino County, California, while awaiting a decision on his asylum claim. At Adelanto, he witnessed deplorable conditions. Low-income detainees had bonds set at tens of thousands of dollars, well beyond what they or their families were able to afford. He and other detainees were fed low-quality food and had little contact with family members. Fed up with these inhuman conditions, Omar joined a group of eight other detainees demanding better conditions of confinement.
On June 12, 2017, the nine detainees began a hunger strike. During that morning’s breakfast, they attempted to deliver a list of demands to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials and requested a meeting with the agency. When the detainees informed detention staff that they would not move until ICE spoke to them about their concerns, the staff reacted violently. The detainees report that an officer unloaded a canister of pepper spray on them, leaving them drenched in the spray. Officers slammed Omar against a wall with such force that it knocked out a tooth and dental crown from his mouth and fractured his nose.
Then officers took Omar and the other detainees to the shower, where they were doused with painfully hot water on their already irritated skin. In the following ten days, the detainees were held in segregation, where they were denied access to the outside world. During this time, the detainees were subjected to retaliation, threats and insults. A guard threatened that the detainees would be transferred far away if they did not quit the hunger strike; another threatened to tell their immigration judges about their hunger strike in order to undermine their asylum claims. Guards regularly taunted the detainees with platters of food.
Today, the ACLU of Southern California sent a letter to ICE officials demanding that they put a stop to the abuse of hunger strikers. The physical assault and retaliation against detainees constitute clear violations of their Fourth Amendment right to be protected from excessive force and their First Amendment right to free speech. Moreover, the conduct of ICE and GEO, the private company that operates the detention center, is a violation of ICE’s own detention standards, which clearly state that pepper spraying detainees shall be used sparingly and not as a form of punishment, and that detainees shall be free from retaliation and have access to telephones and contact with attorneys.
The letter urges ICE and GEO to take immediate steps:
- Put a stop to the ongoing mistreatment of the hunger strikers;
- Initiate disciplinary proceedings for staff responsible for the abuse; and
- Demand that ICE meet with the detainees to address their mistreatment and discuss the grievances that led them to initiate the hunger strike.
These steps are necessary to ensure that no other detainees endure the horrors that Omar has experienced simply for engaging in a peaceful protest. All Omar seeks is freedom and justice, and that should never be too much to ask.