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Interview: An ICE Detainee Is Released After Month-Long Hunger Strike

Bonilla left Honduras to save his life. Then he put his life on the line in order to not be sent back.

Amba Guerguerian Mar 5

Read our interview with Bonilla’s friend, Marcial Morales, about his experience being on hunger strike at Bergen County Jail in New Jersey in November.

Bonilla was released from ICE detention on February 8th after being on hunger strike for 36 days. Like most migrants fleeing dangerous situations, Bonilla crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, which would eventually result in him being placed under deportation proceedings in 2020.

“I moved here because there were too many bad people and I saw too much bad stuff,” Bonilla told the Indypendent. “I decided to escape because I knew they weren’t going to let me leave. They were going to kill or torture or me. I was seeing people killing people 14 years ago and it’s not getting any better]. It’s just getting worse.”

Bonilla came to the United States from Honduras alone  at the age of 16. Now a 30-year-old father of two young children, he lives in North Brunswick, New Jersey where he works as an electrician and a heavy-equipment construction operator. He asked that we not use his full name for fear of retribution from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

ICE has contracts with preexisting jails and prisons to rent out cells for deportees, who are managed by regular jail staff. They pay New Jersey’s Essex County Correctional Facility about $110 a night per detainee to keep immigrants awaiting their deportation hearings behind bars. Detainees are held for as long as four years while they await their hearings and go through the process of appealing the outcome of their cases.

Bonilla spent most of his time in ICE custody at Essex County Correctional facility until he was transferred to Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in New York, a federal prison, as retribution for going on hunger strike. 

He spoke with the Indypendent about why he went on strike, how he prepared himself to do so and what it was like to go a month without eating in New Jersey and New York jails. This interview has been edited for length and concision.

Indypendent: How long were you in ICE detention?

Bonilla: I was in detention for a little over a year. I arrived at Essex County jail January ninth, 2020. Then they moved me sometime in the beginning of January to Buffalo, NY. They moved me illegally. 

When did you start your hunger strike?

I started the 29th of December. I stopped striking on February second because they told me I was going to be paroled. So that’s when I began to eat and they released me on February eighth. 

Why did you go on strike?

It’s not that I think the system is broken. It is broken. 

I was in custody, trusting the immigration system for just about a year and it wasn’t working the way it should have. A judge should be fair, just seeing evidence, putting facts together and making a decision. But immigration judges are not like that. They just see you as a number and flat out tell you no. No, even if you have proof and evidence. 

In my case I had to prove I deserve asylum here in the U.S. I had plenty of evidence. The judge even admitted it. The government attorney even admitted it. They both admitted it. It’s in the transcript — them saying I have plenty of evidence and my statement is truthful but they still denied it. I no longer trust the system. 

Why did they say they denied your asylum claim? They said we trust you but we’re sending you back. Did they give a reason?

No. And that is why I decided to do this. It seems they want to deport you anyway. It doesn’t matter how much proof and evidence you have. 

Did you have a lawyer?

I started with a lawyer but then COVID-19 hit and I decided to give my family the money instead of paying for the lawyer. So I gave them the money and started doing everything pro-se with some help from a few organizations.

So you think the system is broken, I suppose?

It is. It’s not that I think it is broken. It is broken. 

Did you appeal your case?

Yes. I filed for an appeal in October. They haven’t given me an answer, but I see it’s “pending,” so I assume it’s been received. 

Did something happen specifically that triggered you to go on strike? 

After I got the decision to be removed, I submitted the appeal but at the same time I started doing my homework about how to go on hunger strike. I was going to go on strike to protest the decision in my case and the corrupt immigration court but I wanted to be knowledgeable enough to talk back at them with facts.

We tried a hunger strike at the beginning of 2020. We tried but they came to us and abused us. They stepped on our rights but we didn’t have any facts to fight back. We didn’t know our rights. I saw what was happening and I was like this isn’t right. They’re clearly violating our rights but I don’t have anything to prove it. I don’t have any knowledge to argue with because I don’t know my rights. 

So I started doing some research about my rights as a person on hunger strike. I read their protocols and how they should proceed when someone is on hunger strike, the whole nine yards. After a few months, once I felt I had enough knowledge about hunger striking, I started the strike

How did you learn? You went to the law library?

It was hard because in any jail facility you don’t get enough time or resources to get the knowledge you need. Because they want you to be ignorant. Once you get your knowledge and know your rights, they know you can fight back. They give you such limited resources that it’s almost impossible to educate yourself in this way. 

The computers in the law library are from the 1800s. 

Are a lot of websites blocked?

There’s no internet. 

So what do you use it for?

To type a letter. When you turn those computers on they still go “ding ding ding ding!” and the windows light up one color at a time. Once you turn on the computer you might have to wait an hour to get to the home screen. 

But you have limited time in the law library. 

Yeah. They do that so you don’t have any advantage. You’re stuck. No internet. There’s a law library app that hasn’t been updated since 2006. Fourteen years later and we’re doing law research from 2006. 

So if you’re able to get on the computer, the only access you have is a library database that hasn’t been updated since 2006?

Yes. 

So there’s actual books in the library that are legal texts?

No (laughs). There’s only books that—it seems like ones that Christopher Columbus brought in. It’s science fiction books and storybooks. There’s no law books in there. 

So how are you supposed to get legal information? From the computer?

Ohhh, now you’re starting to get it. No, you can’t. You can’t get no knowledge. You got nothing. 

So then how does anybody study for their case? How did you learn any information about hunger striking?

Well I was calling people from the outside telling them “Google this, Google that.” They do not let you have any resources. 

What were you able to learn about your rights as a hunger striker?

I found out their protocols for hunger strikes and my right as a hunger striker. I found out you have to write a letter, sign it, give it to them. I wrote that what I was doing wasn’t against the facility, it was against ICE. Have the people that want to join sign it as well. That’s the beginning of it. 

You can refuse everything but having your vitals taken. If you refuse nine meals it is legally considered a hunger strike. In order to go off strike, they make you eat nine meals. 

The facility takes advantage of you. They’ll offer you water and if you drink it they’ll tell you you broke strike. And if you don’t know your rights, they might trick you into eating again and breaking your strike. 

They told me they were going to lay me on a table and stuff food down my throat.

A lot of us started together. 38 in my dorm, 36 across the hall and 42 next door to me. Corrections Officers (COs) started mistreating people and misleading them because they didn’t know too much about being on strike. They were in the dorm across the hall, so I could only communicate with them so much, so some of them didn’t know their rights, or didn’t know enough of their rights.

How long did it take to organize?

We went back and forth for a week. But it should have been a longer preparation. Because they didn’t know all the extent of what I knew and the COs were verbally abusing them and they were falling for what they were saying. 

A CO would come up to someone and say, “You drank water, or you did this, your strike doesn’t count,” and they would believe it. 

It’s easy to get discouraged. I got discouraged when they bullied me. They told me they were going to lay me on a table and stuff food down my throat. That wasn’t cool. I even wrote down the names of the worst COs. Oldcreed and Smalls. They would talk so much trash, trying to intimidate us. They were psychologically abusing us and threatening physical violence. 

I have the right to go on a hunger strike. My statement even said everything I was doing was against ICE and not at the jail or any staff members of Essex County [Jail]. And I did that for a reason, so that they wouldn’t retaliate like that. So why was I still getting retaliation?

And if I were on the inside, this story wouldn’t come out. I wouldn’t be allowed to talk to you or you to talk to me. You’re locked up in a bubble.

And a lot of calls are monitored?

Yes. And once they hear something they don’t like, they start messing with your phone calls.

We don’t have a fact to back it up but we know the phones. We know how they work. Sometimes I would call my mom and be telling her, “I’m going to do this or doing that.” And they would start messing with the phone. She would press a button to accept the call and it wouldn’t go through. That never happened otherwise. I would be calling and she wouldn’t answer and she would say later she never got your call. 

But it was specifically after you were calling someone about planning or resisting or complaining about the jail that they would mess with calls?

Yes. 

And they did it to other guys, too?

Yes. If you say something they don’t like or that will affect them, they’ll mess with your phone calls. 

Okay so how many people were able to bear the psychological abuse and other hardships and went on official strike [skipping nine meals]?

It dropped down to about half. After the third day, about half were officially on strike. 

On the fifth day, they started moving people to lock-up.

This is basically solitary?

Yeah, it’s punishment. They put you in  a cell alone. It’s a six by eight foot cell with a bunk, a little table, and toilet that has a sink at the top of it. You’re allowed to go out for 20 minutes a day to have your shower and make your phone call. If you go over time, they press a code and 15 people show up. If you say the wrong word or move the wrong way, they will attack you. 

And they sent us to lock-up where the quarantine cells are. I believe their strategy was to get us infected with COVID. Once you’re infected, they have the right to do just about anything they want with you. 

The quarantine area was completely dirty. There are supposed to be workers who clean everything but they don’t have anyone. You could see trash all over the place. I could see and hear the people coughing across the hall. 

I started making some calls telling the outside world what was going on, that we were in there and then people started cleaning and they moved us to another lock-up cell after two days. Then we were there for another two days. 

And who are they locking up?

Mostly they go for the leaders, because once they take you it’s harder for the others to continue. So they moved four from my dorm and four from each of the other two dorms. The weak-minded, they start dropping. Some of them aren’t prepared for where they’re gonna put you through. And they make it seem worse than it even is. They mentally abuse you. They tell you you’re gonna beat the crap outta you down there and you won’t be able to tell anybody. 

By the eighth or tenth day, we were down to one third or less of the original group. 

And that’s when I was moved to Buffalo. Illegally.

How so?

You’re allowed to go out for 20 minutes a day to have your shower and make your phone call. If you go over time, they press a code and 15 people show up. If you say the wrong word or move the wrong way, they will attack you. 

In order to move you to a different facility, you have to have a negative COVID test. I refused to take a COVID test. They have to give you a custody review in order to remove you. They have to have a reason and tell you why. It’s not reasonable to move me for what I was doing because I had the right to do it. 

The two things they needed to move me, a negative COVID test and a valid reason, they didn’t have. 

But they move you anyway. Were you the only one to be transferred?

I was the first, because somehow they found out I was the leader. They moved me in front of everyone. They let everyone know I was being moved. The very next day, six guys dropped. At that point, there were three left that I knew of. There may have been others in other units. 

After I was moved, they moved another guy from Jersey to El Paso. We don’t have any family or friends in places like El Paso or Buffalo. 

I was moved to Buffalo and it was the same thing. They were taking advantage of the situation, thinking I didn’t know my rights and that they could just step on me. They tried but I didn’t let them.

What do you mean they tried?

One of the doctors and one of the nurses would curse at me, “What the fuck? Why are you doing this? You’re not gonna get out. We’re not gonna let you. I’ve been working here for 20 years and nobody has made it.” They would try and convince me to accept the deportation order. 

I was like, “You’re here to watch how my health is going not to tell me who and when and how I am going to get deported. Last time I checked you were just supposed to be the nurse and the doctor.” And they would lose their minds and start yelling and screaming when I talked back. 

When you were sent to Buffalo, were you sent to a quarantine cell? 

Yes. I read the immigration handbook for the facility from cover to cover. It tells me what my rights are. In the unit I was in, I had the right to use just about everything. Even if I was just in lock-up for a fight or something I should still have the right to everything: computers, tablets, go to the yard, showers, razors, haircuts, everything But they weren’t letting anyone in there use anything. 

They wouldn’t let me use the tablet to let me do a video call. I needed to use it to call my kids. So they were taking advantage of that. They came to me and told me, “Once you get out of the hunger strike, I’ll let you use the video call.” Then I spoke to the lieutenant, who came and told the guys, “He has the right [to use the tablet]. But just mess with him.”

When did you move out of that quarantine cell?

I was never in a general dorm, just between SHOE, which is lock-up and the medical observation. It’s a little bigger but you don’t get out. You stay in there. You only get out to take vitals and weigh yourself. I was there for a week at the end. 

I wasn’t able to make calls too often. They would always say “but this, but that” in order to not use the phone. 

They moved me between the quarantine/lock-up cell and the medical unit the whole month that I was in Buffalo. They would send me to the medical unit, then try and make me believe I was healthy enough to not be in there so they would send me back to lock-up. But it takes like 20 steps to get there. I told them, I wrote on a tablet—the chances when they’d let me use it, I was writing to the facility trying to let them know that what they were doing was wrong. They had me walking up and down the stairs. I was on a hunger strike and I was pretty weak. I was afraid to fall going down the stairs. 

In the first 20 something days, they weren’t taking the strike seriously. I gave them a statement the first day I came there that I was doing this and it wasn’t against the staff. It was against ICE. That asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to get released, I wanted parole. And I gave them all my facts. I said I’m not a danger to the community. The country is in a state of emergency. I’m not a flight risk. If I’m fighting my case to stay, that tells you I’m not a flight risk. I’m not trying to go anywhere. There’s plenty of evidence for my case. I showed them that I have two beautiful kids in the United States that are citizens. I showed them I pay taxes, that I lived in New Jersey for almost 14 years. They were still denying my parole. I told them the only way I would stop the hunger strike is by getting some sort of parole or by dying. They just want you to stay there to make money for them. 

Yeah, sometimes I would hallucinate. I was talking to myself. It’s like I was talking to a friend but there was nobody there.

Me being deported, I’m worth the same as dead. So I’m willing to go down that road. “Find any type of parole or get a body bag cause I’m not eating,” I said.

Once 30 days hit and they saw that I had lost 40 pounds they finally started taking me seriously. My blood cells were eating my body and my muscles were cramping. My muscle tissue started eating itself for nutrition. I could hardly open my eyes. I was so weak that if I needed to go to the bathroom, I had to hold on to something. Once I got up, I would be dizzy because my blood wasn’t moving the way it should. 

Were you able to sleep?

Barely. My head was killing me. I had headaches and dizziness all day. I was feeling like puking but what was I supposed to puke? There was nothing in my stomach. 

I was hardly drinking water. The pipes were dirty. I drink just enough to keep my mouth a little hydrated. You could see that my skin was all wrinkly. It started peeling off. 

Right now I still can’t even sleep. I sleep for an hour or two. I believe it’s because of the trauma. It was a really horrible journey. 

Don’t you begin to lose your mind even after a few days of not eating?

Yeah, sometimes I would hallucinate. I was talking to myself. It’s like I was talking to a friend but there was nobody there. Sometimes I would feel aggravated even though nobody was there. There were like two sides of my mind. The good one would tell me, don’t lose it. The other was feeling crazy. 

I was hungry. I was hungry the whole 36 days. 

So you were released at the beginning of February. How are you feeling now?

My family is treating me differently. I’m gaining a little bit of weight. I’ve been trying to get a doctor to see me but with COVID it’s been hard. 

For about three weeks I was still only sleeping a couple hours a day. I’m working as a maintenance mechanic at a gluten-free factory. Work has been harder because I have to drink lots of energy drinks to stay awake during the day. When I go home at night, I can’t fall asleep. I’m exhausted but I can’t sleep. 

What kind of parole did you get?

Humanitarian parole, 30 days. They didn’t give me an ankle bracelet or anything. I’m on parole now and my case is still pending so I’m basically in a limbo. After a month I had to go to immigration office. 

So after a month I went to the ICE office in Newark at the time and place they told me. I was When I got to the front door and I spoke to the officer he didn’t let me in. He asked me if he was paying the bond. I told him I was coming to see my deportation officer. 

He told me to call the number and let them know you came here. So I did. I did call the number. And it was a pain in the ass just to get in touch with somebody. It’s aggravating. 

When I finally got in contact with somebody I told her the whole deal and then she said she was going to call the deportation officer and the deportation officer was going to call me to schedule a different date. I asked for his name. I didn’t want to wait for him to call so I figured out what the deportation officer’s name is and how to find his phone number and I dial it. He didn’t pick up so I left a message saying who I was and what I was calling for. I asked him to call me back and asked what was going on with my case. 

They’re not doing anything. What happens if I don’t speak English? What happens if I don’t know how to maneuver this? If I’m not knowledgeable enough to interact with them?

Are you nervous that they’re gonna take you again?

You never know with these people. They might.  

Are you in contact with people inside?

I’m trying to help the people inside with some knowledge so they are strong. I promised to myself that if I can do anything to help the guys inside, I’m right on it. I’ll be right on top of it. Sometimes people need some strong words to encourage them. I’ll be taking the calls. I don’t care how weak I am. I can still talk. I’ll be taking the calls. 

I am in contact with two guys at Batavia who are on strike and there might be more. One has been in there for three years. And a few in Essex County, eight or nine, are educating themselves about how to go on strike. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Both the facilities where I experienced my hunger strike, the medical staff sucks. After a week of striking in Essex, they only saw me once. They didn’t come, I went to them. They took my vitals and weight. 

In Batavia, the doctor took advantage of her authority. She would come screaming and yelling and me, the whole nine yards. She would try and intimidate me to stop the hunger strike. “You’re never gonna get out!” she would yell. 

I had an incident with the nurse. She would come and wake me up at five in the morning just to see if I had peed. They know I’m having a hard time sleeping because of my headaches and dizziness. I asked them to please come and ask me if I peed at a different time. And early in the morning is when my headaches used to subside enough to be able to sleep. And they knew that. They knew how my body was working at that time and would do it just to fuck with me. She would still come at 5 a.m. every day. 

She would come smacking on the metal door.

She would smack on the door and yell, “Get up! Show me what you peed!”

I asked for warning for when I was going to pee. And I put a statement on the door, “please leave the light on.” I thought that if I could fall asleep with the light on, I would stay asleep. Because she would also come in and turn the lights on which would make me wake up, especially with my dry eyes. They saw my note and were laughing. And they never stopped knocking at five. 

I think we should not have borders. We shouldn’t have lines.

And they would demand that I moved quickly when they knew I couldn’t. If I got up too fast, I would fall. 

Why do you think they treat you so terribly?

They don’t want you to get out. They’re racist. It’s a money-making machine. The longer you stay in there, the more money they make. 

The staff is terrible. They’re trash. They’re not human. Do you see what you’re doing to a person? How you’re abusing their rights? How you’re treating them? 

I think we should not have borders. We shouldn’t have lines. If God put the whole world in here to walk around, why would we have borders? We have to do something about immigration because they’re taking advantage in every way they can. They can violate all of your rights for them to accomplish what they want. Something has to be said. Something has to be done. They either need to follow the right protocols or shut it down [ICE]. 

I live in an immigrant community. People are worrying about ICE all the time. I have family and friends that are affected by them. I have two cousins, one twelve and one eight. Their father was deported to Mexico and the kids are—you have no idea. They’re struggling so much. The eight-year-old kid is talking about killing and shooting and hanging people. They’re not eating. It’s unbelievable the way they can hurt a kid by doing what they do. The community where I live has been hit by them in a pretty big way. The impact has been tough.

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