About 300 aliens went on a hunger strike Monday at the Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center in El Centro to protest overcrowding, poor sanitation and violations of their legal rights, said an attorney for the aliens.
Graciela Zavala, a lawyer with the Imperial Valley Immigration Project, said more than half of the 500 men detained at the center began their strike at 6 a.m. She said the men are drinking liquids but not eating.
The majority of the aliens participating are Central American refugees who have applied for political asylum. Zavala said they have presented a list of demands to INS officials.
Some Salvadorans and Guatemalans held at the center, called El Corralon (the Big Corral) by the aliens, claim they will be killed if they are returned to their countries. The center also holds aliens from China, Iran, India, Tahiti and other Asian and European countries. Alien women and children are held at a separate camp in Calexico.
"The strikers have told me that they are generally protesting violations of their human rights. They say that they are being treated as animals instead of humans," Zavala said.
The aliens have complained of a shortage of toilets, sinks and soap at the camp, Zavala said. They also have complained that they are forced to stand outside for as many as 14 hours a day in temperatures that reach as high as 120 degrees. INS officials do not allow the aliens to enter the air conditioned barracks during the day, she noted.
Aliens also have complained of physical and psychological abuse at the camp, said Zavala, adding that aliens are sometimes placed in solitary confinement for refusing to accept voluntary departures from the United States.
"These people are not criminals. They have not been convicted of anything. There is no reason for the INS to treat them like this," she said.
She said that the camp is served by one doctor, "who prescribes aspirin for every ailment."
Aliens detained at the camp were brought there from as far away as Washington and Utah. Being detained so far from home makes it difficult for aliens to receive support from family members and legal assistance from their lawyers, Zavala said.
"They're sent as far away as possible from their sources of support. Consequently, the aliens find themselves alone and discouraged, so they agree to voluntary deportation just to be released. This is precisely what the INS wants," Zavala said.
Immigration officials refused to comment--either on the strike or on Zavala's charges. One INS official, who refused to give his name, said that a statement might be released today.
A demonstration was scheduled at 10 a.m. today in front of the camp by supporters of the aliens, Zavala said.