Court Order Allows ICE to Force-Feed Arizona Detainee on Hunger Strike

Satellite image of La Palma Correctional Center, where Aamir Sheikh went on hunger strike.
Satellite image of La Palma Correctional Center, where Aamir Sheikh went on hunger strike. Google Maps
Immigration officials sought and received permission from a federal court to force-feed a Pakistani national who went on a hunger strike more than two weeks ago at a private Eloy detention center, but the potential treatment has been called torture by the United Nations.

Aamir Hafiz Sheikh started refusing meals on March 10 out of frustration that Pakistani officials have not provided a travel document he needs for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport him. Sheikh claimed to medical staffers that he intermittently drank sips of water, but officials have not observed him doing so.

He was ordered deported by an immigration judge on May 3, 2018, and the 44-year-old immigrant has been detained at La Palma Correctional Facility since August 27, 2018.

Sheikh, who owned businesses in Phoenix and Mesa, was convicted of food stamp fraud in 2015. 

Three days into his hunger strike, Sheikh was treated for dehydration and stomach inflammation at Banner Casa Grande Medical Center. Sheikh has refused medical monitoring since his hospital visit, according to federal officials.

“Due to the inability to assess his exact medical state, there is concern of Mr. Sheikh going into renal failure, liver failure, or becoming comatose due to dehydration and hypotension, which could lead to his death," wrote first assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Strange.

The federal government sought an emergency order to "administer necessary hydration and nutritional supplements" to Sheikh.

U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa then issued an order on March 22 granting ICE authority to force-feed Sheikh through a nasal tube or intravenous line. Humetewa's order also allows ICE to restrain Sheikh if he refuses to cooperate and perform involuntary medical examinations on him.

A spokesperson for ICE did not immediately respond to a question asking whether the agency has force-fed Sheikh or whether he is still on a hunger strike. Sheikh does not appear to be represented by an attorney, according to federal court records.

ICE drew international attention in January when it used nasal tubes to force-feed nine hunger-striking Indian nationals in El Paso, Texas. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement suggesting the practice could constitute a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture. ICE stopped force-feeding the El Paso detainees in February, Texas Monthly reported.

The practice of force-feeding inmates through a nasal tube is controversial in the medical field.

The American Medical Association opposed the practice when it was used on detainees at Guantanamo Bay, saying, “Force feeding of detainees violates core ethical values of the medical profession.” The World Medical Association has also condemned force-feeding.

Liz Martinez, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants, said that there have been more than 1,400 cases of immigrant detainees going on hunger strikes since the group began keeping track of such cases in May 2015.

Martinez said she only knows of one other case, which took place in Georgia in 2017, in which a federal court granted permission for ICE to force-feed a detainee via nasal tube. Immigrant-advocacy groups have recently argued in a case in Tacoma, Washington, that hunger-striking constitutes constitutionally protected free speech and that force-feeding violates that right.

"It’s not only a violation of the First Amendment, but also medically unethical and barbaric," Martinez said in a phone interview. "It’s extremely painful."

La Palma Correctional Center, the private prison where Sheikh is being held, is owned by CoreCivic. The facility started housing immigrant detainees in July, after CoreCivic entered into a contract with the federal government. Before then, the prison mostly took convicts from California.

The immigrant-rights organization Puente claimed in September that more than 100 immigrant detainees at La Palma started a hunger strike in September, demanding regular access to bathrooms and showers and three meals a day. A spokesperson for ICE, however, told local National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ at the time that there was no hunger strike.

Sheikh's most recent hunger strike is his fourth, according to an affidavit submitted by Dr. William Crane, a physician at La Palma. The Pakistani national also went on hunger strikes from November 26 to December 4, from January 22 to February 1, and from March 6 to 9.

All of those strikes ended with Sheikh eating, Crane testified.

Read U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Strange's motion to for an order granting ICE permission to force-feed Sheikh:

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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh