color photograph of a person wearing a black long-sleeve shirt holds a cardboard sign reading "Abolish ICE" in red and blue letters
Activists gather for a "Reunite Our Families Now" rally in Los Angeles on March 6, 2021, to protest continued deportations under President Joe Biden, urging that ICE be abolished and calling for the closure of camps where immigrants are being held. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

CW: This article contains descriptions of attempted suicide, abuse, and violence.

In mid-October, a group of asylum-seekers held in New Mexico’s Torrance County Detention Facility were abruptly transferred for deportation. Detainees said it was in retaliation for participating in a hunger strike. Just days later, about two hours away at the Cibola County Correctional Center, an asylum-seeker attempted suicide. According to advocates, at least 20 people held at Cibola have been on hunger strike since then—inspired by the recent protest at Torrance denouncing dangerous and inhumane conditions. 

“He was there, agonizing,” said Juan, a 26-year-old asylum-seeker from Colombia, during a phone call from Cibola facilitated by Taylor Noya, an attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, on Oct. 19—one day after the suicide attempt. Juan helped organize the hunger strike. He found the man hanging from a staircase railing with a sheet around his neck around 3 a.m. Juan and two of his friends managed to get the man down, and another person detained at Cibola gave him mouth-to-mouth. Authorities took the man to the hospital, and according to his attorney, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center’s Zoe Bowman, he was placed in solitary confinement when he returned to Cibola. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released him from detention a couple of days later in October.

ICE didn’t confirm the incident was a suicide attempt, and CoreCivic, a corrections and detention management contractor that runs both the Cibola and Torrance facilities, “vehemently den[ies] any allegations of detainee mistreatment.” As of Nov. 29, the hunger strike at Cibola is ongoing, and, like at Torrance, those involved have reported brutal retaliation, Noya said. ICE has denied the hunger strike is even taking place. 

Last week, the NMILC said in a press release four of the hunger strikers had fainted and at least two of the men were deported. Juan and several other of the hunger strikers were put in solitary confinement, according to Noya. 

Juan has been detained at Cibola since April after turning himself in and requesting asylum in El Paso, Texas. He and other asylum-seekers have long denounced medical neglect, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, inedible food, due process violations, prolonged detention, and racism at the facility. The man’s attempted suicide pushed their feelings of desolation and frustration over their limits, spurring their hunger strike over one month ago.

“We saved someone’s life this time, but what about tomorrow when something worse happens?” Juan asked. 

Juan fled Colombia when he started receiving death threats from police over his involvement in anti-government protests against former right-wing President Iván Duque. He arrived at Cibola with broken ribs after surviving an assault in Mexico but said he was only given acetaminophen for his injury. Juan said the medical neglect at Cibola is rampant. Just a day before the suicide attempt at Cibola, another asylum-seeker from Colombia fainted in the bathroom and split his head open. Juan said they had to use toilet paper to try to stop the bleeding while the man didn’t receive medical care for at least four hours. 

People with depression and other mental health conditions are often sent to isolation wearing straitjackets, Juan said. ICE officials rarely respond to inquiries on people’s cases, asylum-seekers and immigrants are detained for prolonged periods and denied parole and bond hearings even if they have sponsors living in the U.S. and meet other qualifications, and people who’ve agreed to be deported at times have to wait months before they’re sent to their home countries, the Cibola hunger strikers and advocates said. 

“We don’t deserve to be treated like this; we deserve to be released,” Juan said. 

Not a single day of peace

Torrance County Detention Facility is located about two hours east on Interstate 40 from Cibola. Albuquerque, New Mexico, sits between the two ICE detention centers that CoreCivic operates. Reports of psychological abuse, rampant medical neglect, poor or nonexistent mental health care, inedible food, lack of potable drinking water, due process violations and prolonged detention have for years been reported by asylum-seekers and immigrants at Torrance and the attorneys and advocates supporting them outside. Despite the risks, asylum-seekers and immigrants have consistently come together to organize. 

At Torrance, their resistance only intensified after the August death by suicide of Kesley Vial, a 23-year-old asylum-seeker from Brazil. ICE transferred Vial to Torrance in April, and in the months leading up to his death, he expressed suffering from insomnia, depression, anxiety, poor appetite, and fear of being deported. Advocates said his death was triggered by the severe lack of mental health care and medical neglect that plague Torrance.

In late September, 13 asylum-seekers detained at Torrance announced they had started a hunger strike. It lasted about two weeks until ICE placed two of the hunger strikers in solitary confinement and threatened others they’d wind up in the same place and be force-fed. In a statement, CoreCivic denied the hunger strike ever took place and said the allegations made by asylum-seekers were false. 

After Vial’s death, many of his friends and other people who knew him from being detained in the same cell block were immediately separated, said Noya, who is in constant communication with asylum-seekers and immigrants held at Torrance and Cibola. 

“This was hard for them; they had formed friendships [and] all endured this same horrible, traumatic experience together,” she said. “This also has very much to do with all of the retaliation that we’ve seen by ICE and by CoreCivic employees following the men’s complaints about the conditions and also their speaking out about the fact that those conditions led to Kesley’s death.”

The infrastructure at Torrance is so degraded that cells sometimes flood with human excrement from broken pipes and clogged toilets. Rain gets in through the cell windows, and there’s mold. Many have reported getting severe stomach aches after drinking the facility’s water and eating food that is often served raw. The uniforms provided can be so filthy that people have said they’ve gotten skin infections, pimples, or rashes. 

Torrance guards and ICE officials have been accused of physical force, verbal abuse, and racism. There are also extreme delays in processing cases with asylum-seekers and immigrants waiting months before they’re even able to see a judge. Hearings are also frequently postponed, according to several complaints filed by NMILC and its partners, which include Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Innovation Law Lab, Justice for Our Neighbors El Paso, and the El Paso Immigration Collaborative.

“Psychologically, they made us feel very badly—to the point where I was scared of hurting myself,” said Selçuk, a Kurdish asylum-seeker who fled Turkey and was detained at Torrance for three months until he was released on bond in early September. “We couldn’t eat the food at all. When we drank the water, our tonsils and throats would hurt a lot … We were locked in and only had an hour to go out, sometimes it would be 40 minutes, 20 minutes, whatever [the guards] wanted. They would look at us from above like they were kings and we were slaves.”

One night in mid-October, many of the hunger strikers at Torrance were startled by guards shouting the names of those who would be immediately transferred for deportation. NMILC said at least six of them were deported that night. 

Another one of the hunger strikers, Orlando de los Santos Evangelista, an asylum-seeker from the Dominican Republic, was transferred for deportation in late October. Attorneys at NMILC said de los Santos Evangelista was “violently pulled … from his bunk … and chained … to a wheelchair to facilitate his deportation.” De los Santos Evangelista has high blood pressure, but he was continuously denied release from Torrance despite fearing for his health. He hoped to apply for a U visa—arguing he was a survivor of “significant crimes” at Torrance. 

De los Santos Evangelista had been at Torrance since July. Even as he faced deportation to the Dominican Republic, where he’d escaped violence and death threats from police and others, he still asked Noya about his compañeros at Torrance. 

“I haven’t had a day of peace here,” de los Santos Evangelista said during a phone call from Torrance weeks before he was transferred for removal. “My message to all of my compañeros from Torrance is that they should always speak up against the abuses committed by ICE. They are trying to silence me. They want to deport me so that I’m no longer able to speak the truth.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General has recommended Torrance’s closure twice this year alone. In two reports published in March and September, the OIG red flagged mounting violations at Torrance, including severe staff shortages, inadequate medical care, use of force against people detained at Torrance, and disruptions and challenges in people’s access to legal services. Calls to shut down Torrance have also been echoed by several members of Congress

In May 2021, a group of asylum-seekers filed a civil rights lawsuit against CoreCivic after Torrance guards pepper sprayed them for launching a hunger strike in 2020 protesting the facility’s inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic—which ICE has denied. There have been over 470 cases of COVID-19 reported at Torrance. 

Torrance also failed its annual government inspection in 2021, conducted by the private contractor Nakamoto Group. It’s extremely rare for ICE detention centers to fail these inspections, which have often been denounced by immigrant justice advocates as a sham. Since December 2020, ICE itself has been raising concerns to CoreCivic about serious understaffing at Torrance that’s remained unresolved until now—this includes medical staff. 

“Our medical contractors concluded that these medical unit vacancies impacted the level of care detainees received for suicide watch, dental care, and chronic care,” OIG’s September report detailed. CoreCivic said in a statement that everyone detained at Torrance has access to medical and mental health care.

But the testimonies of asylum-seekers and immigrants, attorneys, and advocates refute that.

“This is the foundation of the tragic death of Kesley Vial and what’s happening now inside the facility,” said Rebecca Sheff, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which represents Vial’s family in a wrongful death investigation. “And yet, despite all of this, the Biden administration so far has dug in its heels and refused to close the facility.”

In a statement, ICE said that it continuously monitors Torrance “to make sure it’s consistently meeting our high standards and minimum requirements. If those standards and requirements are not met, ICE will terminate the agreement for use of the facility.” The agency also said it disagreed with the OIG reports.

ICE pays Torrance nearly $2 million monthly to detain asylum-seekers and immigrants. The detention center is required to hold a minimum of 505 people. The ACLU estimated there were some 70 people in ICE custody at Torrance as of September. Despite the worsening problems, the detention center passed another Nakamoto Group inspection this year

Sheff said that if Torrance had failed two inspections in a row, ICE would have been required to terminate the contract with CoreCivic. Advocates are unsurprised at how Torrance maneuvers to avoid protocols for accountability that are supposed to protect the people in the facility’s custody. 

“This time, it’s really come to a point where it’s unconscionable for CoreCivic to keep holding people in these conditions in this particular facility, especially on top of Kesley’s recent death and the very serious unanswered questions about their ability to ensure the basic safety of everyone who is detained,” Sheff said.

Seeking asylum is a human right

The night many of the Torrance hunger strikers were deported in mid-October, César, an asylum-seeker from Colombia, said he told guards he would not go willingly. They forcibly restrained him by the wrists, waist, and ankles with handcuffs and chains and dragged him out by force, he said. At the time, César said he was in the process of requesting another credible fear interview after a judge denied his first attempt and placed him in expedited removal. He said that credible fear interview was a blur. He felt deeply confused and traumatized by his abrupt trek to the U.S. and his confinement at Torrance. 

“I had all the evidence, and they still denied my right to apply for asylum,” he said from a phone call in Colombia, where he remains in hiding since his deportation from the U.S. “I don’t have much support right now. I’m afraid to go out. If someone finds out I’m here, they might do something to me or my family.” 

César won’t go into much detail about why he fled Colombia in August. He decried what he said was unfair due process while at Torrance, where he repeatedly felt ignored by immigration and Torrance officials who, César said, prevented him from accessing the resources he needed to fight his asylum case justly. 

“César said he had submitted his request for a reinterview … before his deportation and had not received word back,” Noya said. “If he had in fact done so, he should not have been deported pending a decision on that request. It may have been that his request was either not submitted properly or it was ignored.” 

According to Noya, requests to be reinterviewed must be submitted within seven days of a judge’s initial decision to deny a person’s credible fear interview—which determines whether they can pursue asylum in the U.S. While she acknowledges that César’s request wasn’t submitted in a timely manner, she maintains that it still should have been addressed before he was deported. 

Juan, one of César’s good friends and fellow hunger striker at Torrance, was also transferred on the same night to be deported to Ecuador. Juan said he spent most of the next three days handcuffed at the wrists and ankles and chained at the waist, first on board a bus and then multiple flights. 

“My arms and wrists hurt very badly,” Juan said from a phone call in Quito, Ecuador. “My attorney told me that if I resisted, it would be much worse.”

Juan said he thinks it was about 2 a.m. when their bus finally departed from Torrance to an airport in El Paso, Texas—approximately a four-hour drive. They were put on a plane and made stops in California, Arizona, and Louisiana before the groups were split according to their country of origin. 

Juan spoke about the violence he endured while crossing Mexico. He said he and the other men he was crossing with were forced to strip naked and were robbed by Mexican police. Juan came to the U.S. with his longtime partner, and now they’re now separated by deportation.

Juan entered Torrance weighing 155 pounds and left at 134, he said. Meanwhile, other hunger strikers at Torrance said they are terrified by the brutal retaliation they’ve suffered for speaking up. 

“I joined the hunger strike to fight for my freedom,” said an asylum-seeker from Nicaragua who asked to remain anonymous for safety. He began to cry during a phone call from Torrance facilitated by Noya as he described the numerous sleepless nights over the past more than two months he’s been detained at the facility. He said the lights are never turned off and that his cell is freezing cold. The sound of banging metal doors and rattling keys as guards make their late-night rounds have also exacerbated his insomnia. 

Before Torrance, he said that he had never been jailed or detained before. He fled Nicaragua over political repression, but the psychological abuse he said he’s endured at Torrance forced him to sign his deportation—a process that has been delayed because ICE said it hasn’t received the proper travel documents from the Nicaraguan consulate, according to Noya and the asylum-seeker.

“I’ve been a healthy person, but I became ill after being locked up in here,” he said. “My blood pressure is up, and the doctors have told me my heart could stop at any moment because it’s not pumping correctly. I’m afraid I’ll die here. I beg God to save me. I have a 9-year-old daughter and newborn baby.”

He said he would find solace when he talked and prayed with his friends J.A.R., another asylum-seeker from Nicaragua who asked to use only his initials, and de los Santos Evangelista, who has since been deported. J.A.R., who was also part of the hunger strike, has been detained at Torrance for over two months and is fighting his deportation. 

Even the asylum-seekers who’ve been deported have vowed to keep fighting for their friends at Torrance and say they won’t stop speaking out until everyone is freed and the facility is closed.

“They should be given asylum; they should be treated with equity and dignity,” César said from Colombia. “Stop treating immigrants with such cruelty.”

María Inés Taracena

María Inés Taracena is a contributing writer covering workers’ rights at Prism. Originally from Guatemala, she's currently a news producer at Democracy Now! in New York City focusing on Central America...