After missing more than 30 consecutive meals, Aamir Sheikh finally ate breakfast again: cereal, milk, and a hard-boiled egg.
The night before, on April 1, Sheikh broke a three-week hunger strike over his prolonged detention at an immigration detention center in Eloy, he told Phoenix New Times in a phone interview on Monday. He had lost about 30 pounds, and the authorities gave him “liquid food” to transition him back to eating. (Federal officials said in court documents that he started eating again on March 26.)
It was Sheikh’s third hunger strike since an immigration judge ordered him deported back to Pakistan on May 3, 2018. Sheikh was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on July 24, 2017, after serving time in state prison for food stamp fraud.
The 47-year-old has been detained ever since, waiting nearly 21 months behind bars to board a plane back to Pakistan.
Sheikh said he’d willingly deport to Lahore — where his ailing father lives — but ICE for months had trouble obtaining a necessary travel document from the Pakistani consulate.
If federal officials would not send him back to his home country, Sheikh said, ICE should release him from custody at La Palma Correctional Center so he can be with his wife at his home in Chandler. Sheikh already missed his mother’s death in August. Then his aunt died.
“I said, ‘Deport me or release me,'” Sheikh said. “That’s it.”
ICE did not deport him or release him, despite Sheikh’s willingness to post $10,000 bond and wear an ankle monitor. So he stopped eating.
Sheikh went without food for nine days in November. During that time, ICE put Sheikh in a medical isolation room where they took away his phone privileges, he said. Medical staff would check in periodically, urging him to “eat, eat, eat.” Security staff checked in every 15 minutes. Sheikh felt like ICE was retaliating against him by separating him from the general population.
In response to questions from New Times, regional ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe reissued a statement she sent last month regarding Sheikh’s hunger strike: “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers. ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees.”
Sheikh started eating again after a top ICE official visited him and promised to sort his case out. Nothing happened after that, Sheikh said.
Sheikh went on hunger strike for another eight days in January. A representative from the Pakistani consulate visited him then and said he could get Sheikh’s travel document within 30 days. The document did not appear within that time window, Sheikh said, due to issues locating a permanent address for him in Pakistan.
“It’s lie after lie after lie after lie,” Sheikh said.
Sheikh started his latest hunger strike on March 10.
During that strike, Sheikh’s condition became so dire that ICE obtained a federal court order on March 22 to feed him with a nasal tube, a procedure that United Nations officials said could violate international law against torture. U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Stranger cited a concern of Sheikh going into “renal failure, liver failure, or becoming comatose due to dehydration and hypotension, which could lead to his death.”
The order also granted medical officials’ permission to take Sheikh’s vitals without his cooperation, since he had resisted all attempts to draw his blood.
ICE did not end up force-feeding Sheikh, but officials did try to take his blood. Sheikh said corrections officers used force to restrain him, including a device he compared to a police riot shield.
“I was super-dizzy already,” Sheikh said. “I had no energy in the body. Six or seven officers, they pushed me down with a plastic shield. How can you do a breath when that plastic shield is atop of you and they’re pushing me down?”
Sheikh said the show of force caused him to cooperate with the blood test. By then, Sheikh said, he weighed about 128 pounds, compared with the 158 pounds he weighed when he arrived at La Palma.
ICE showed Sheikh his travel document on April 1 and said they should have him on a plane within two weeks. He started eating again.
On Monday afternoon — 15 days after Sheikh ended his third hunger strike — the Pakistani man was still in detention. He said he would start a hunger strike again if ICE officials did not give him a straight answer on his case.
Sheikh said he last asked ICE for an update on Sunday.
“They said, ‘Soon, soon.’ What’s soon? Another two months? There’s no soon,” Sheikh said. “I have to go, man.”
As of publication, New Times has not heard back from Sheikh.