At least 180 immigration detainees held at the York County Prison have started a hunger strike to demand their release because of the coronavirus pandemic, migrant advocates said on Saturday.
“We are chickens in a chicken coop here — we are like sitting ducks,” said one striker, Jesus, who was identified only by his first name by Movement of Immigration Leaders in Pennsylvania, an activist group.
The strikers fear that the virus will be brought inside by staff, and that once detainees become ill they will not get proper medical attention, according to MILPA and immigration attorney Alyssa Kane of ALDEA – The People’s Justice Center in Reading.
Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Saturday that “several” detainees at York had recently refused meals.
“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference” and “does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers,” the agency said in a statement.
ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to its detainees, and the food and water intake of those identified as hunger strikers is monitored, the agency said.
Migrants can be held at York for all kinds of reasons. Some are seeking asylum, a legal means of staying in the country. Others are legal permanent residents whose status became imperiled by a criminal issue. Many have been in the United States for years or decades.
Health officials have warned that detention centers, jails, and prisons could be hotbeds of COVID-19 outbreaks.
“In our block there are older gentlemen, there are people with high blood pressure, diabetes,” Jesus said through MILPA, adding that detainees could be released with ankle monitors. “The majority of us are hardworking people who want to be home with their family, especially during a crisis like this.”
The prison holds male and female immigration detainees and sentenced prisoners, although the men’s side of the prison is generally all migrants. Last summer a mumps outbreak at a few Texas immigration detention centers quickly surged through the system, sickening almost 1,000 migrants in 57 facilities across the country. An entire wing at York had to be quarantined for two months.