Hunger strikes at ICE detention centers protest slave labor

Protesters outside Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, California, June 4, 2020.

“GEO is a billion-dollar company, and they’re paying us $1 a day,” 21-year-old detainee Cruz Martinez said. “They’re getting rich off of us.” (

On Feb. 16, Martinez and over 80 incarcerated immigrants began a hunger strike at two ICE detention centers in California, because they are paid only $1.00 a day for working eight-hour shifts in the prisons run by GEO Group. They do janitorial work,  which includes jobs where they’ve been exposed to black mold. The jobs involve scrubbing bathrooms, working as barbers, doing laundry and other jobs that maintain the facilities. 

This hunger strike follows an earlier work stoppage that has been going on for 10 months. The strike and work stoppage both demanded that detainees who clean dorms and dining halls be paid the minimum wage and not $1 a day.

The hunger strike was at two for-profit immigration detention centers: the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield and the Golden State Annex in McFarland. If not for the forced labor, they would have to hire workers and pay the California minimum wage.

The hunger strike lasted for 35 days, until March 24. The numbers of strikers  varied, as some had to drop out because of health problems while others joined in. Even though detention center officials used violent tactics to break the strike, the hunger strikers’ persistence continued for over a month.

According to detained people and their legal representatives, within several days of the start of the protest, hunger strikers faced retaliation in the form of threats of solitary confinement and bans on family visitation, among other punishments. 

ICE raids brutal

But on March 17, the retaliation took a violent turn.  A press release from the California Collaborative says:  “In the early morning, ICE special response unit raided a dorm at Mesa Verde, slammed at least three strikers to the floor, placed them in handcuffs and transferred four strikers to a facility in El Paso, Texas, where they broke their strike after being threatened with force-feeding by court order. Strikers at Mesa Verde, who witnessed the violent transfers, broke their strike in fear of being subject to further retaliation.” 

On March 14 ICE agents raided the Golden State Annex, where at least one person had an officer kneel on his head, causing injuries to his face, and three people were removed from the facility. All phone lines were cut after the raid began — including protected attorney lines. 

Members of the Mesa Verde-Golden State Annex Support Committee provided wide public support for the strikers, who have vowed to continue their struggle for liberation and to have the two facilities shut down.

Members of the support committee include: the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, Centro Legal de la Raza, Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, El Concilio Family Services, Freedom for Immigrants and Free Them All San Diego.

Other supporters include Kern Welcoming and Extending Solidarity to Immigrants, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement-Sacramento Chapter, La Voz de los Trabajadores, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, Pangea Legal Services, Papeles Para Todos and the Rapid Response Network of Kern County.

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