Screenshot of surveillance video moments before the pepper spraying. Surveillance and lapel video was obtained by NMILC and ACLU from CoreCivic via an IRPA request.

By: Nadia Cabrera-Mazzeo & Arifa Raza / ACLU-NM & NM Immigrant Law Center

A year ago, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, asylum seekers held at the privately-run immigrant detention center in Estancia, New Mexico were brutally attacked with pepper spray by guards. Why? For engaging in a peaceful hunger strike calling attention to the lack of precautions against COVID-19 and the abysmal conditions they found themselves in. This week, the ACLU-NM, the NM Immigrant Law Center, and Santa Fe Dreamers Project are suing Torrance County and CoreCivic, the private company that operates the Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF) for this horrifying attack. 

The men who were attacked by the guards began a peaceful hunger strike after weeks of pleading with detention officials for increased distancing measures, personal protective equipment, COVID testing, non-toxic cleaning supplies and general communication about the virus, in which they were consistently dismissed. Shortly thereafter, TCDF confirmed its first case of COVID-19. 

On May 14, 2020, three days into their hunger strike, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the warden of the facility demanded that they end their strike. When the men refused to end their hunger strike, a constitutionally protected form of expression, dozens of guards entered wearing full smocks, gas masks, and shields, and proceeded to throw multiple grenades of pepper spray into the dormitory, emptying several cans of industrial-grade pepper spray directly in their faces. Guards blocked the exits and forced everyone to huddle in one corner of the room. The men screamed as their skin and eyes burned and gasped for air as the pepper spray irritated and constricted their lungs. Some lost consciousness. The medical team refused to enter the unventilated room that was full of toxic fumes. 

After a botched decontamination process, these men, all asylum seekers, were placed in solitary confinement. Two of them attempted suicide.

Unfortunately, this attack is not exceptional, rather it highlights the daily horrors that play out throughout the U.S. immigrant detention system. To begin, ICE is not required to detain people seeking asylum. In fact, ICE’s own policy instructs that asylum seekers should be released while awaiting rulings in their cases, provided they meet certain requirements. Yet time and time again, ICE chooses to detain people, like these asylum seekers, for profit, rather than allowing them to stay with family or community members as their cases proceed. If the government chooses to detain people, it must protect their health, safety, and well-being. Contracting with private corporations that profit off of human suffering runs counter to that obligation. Every year, our organizations receive reports of human rights violations, such as medical neglect, sexual abuse, and retaliatory uses of segregation, in privately-run immigration facilities.

Ultimately, New Mexico must stop contracting with private prison corporations like CoreCivic. This past legislative session, we and other advocates pushed to formally end all privately-run detention facilities, including ICE detention centers, in New Mexico. Subjecting people fleeing persecution to further harm and violence is an affront to our laws and values as a nation. Until we can end these practices, we will marshall all of our resources to hold government agencies and private corporations accountable when they violate immigrants’ rights. If they continue to abuse their power, we’ll see them in court.

Nadia Cabrera-Mazzeo is a staff attorney with the ACLU- NM. Arifa Raza is a supervising attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.