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US lawmakers demand probe into reports Muslim detainees forced to eat pork

The Muslim congresswomen, along with 27 other Representatives, ask Homeland Security to investigate claims that detainees were fed pork and expired food
Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar sent a letter to the office for civil rights and civil liberties at the Department of Homeland Security, calling for the investigation (AFP/File photo)
By Sheren Khalel in Tampa, Florida

Dozens of US House representatives are demanding an investigation into reports that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Miami has been "regularly" serving pork and expired halal meals to Muslim detainees. 

In response to a complaint filed earlier this month by two rights groups, Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib - the first Muslim women elected to Congress - sent a letter on Monday to the office for civil rights and civil liberties at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), calling for the investigation. 

Signed by at least 27 other representatives, the letter demanded that DHS, which oversees ICE, look into a complaint filed on 19 August which claimed that the ICE-run Krome Service Processing Center in Miami, Florida, had been giving Muslims the choice between pre-plated pork meals and spoiled religious accommodations since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. 

At the time, ICE refuted the complaint, telling Middle East Eye that "any claim that ICE denies reasonable and equitable opportunity for persons to observe their religious dietary practices is false".

But according to Monday's letter, lawmakers were not convinced. 

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"While ICE has publicly denied the allegations, every aspect of the allegations has documented precedent," the letter reads.

'It is unconscionable Muslim ICE detainees were reportedly forced to choose between eating pork or rotten halal food'

- Ilhan Omar, House representative

"Given the history of religious freedom violations across ICE detention facilities, including violations affecting Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu detainees, we find the allegations of targeted violations of Muslim civil rights to be credible."

The lawmakers pointed out that in February 2019, a DHS Office of the Inspector General's report found "unsanitary and unsafe conditions" at New Jersey's Essex County correctional facility, the largest of such detention centres in the region.

The 2019 report said inspectors had found that "food handling, in general, was so substandard that ICE and facility leadership had the kitchen manager replaced during [the] inspection".

At the time, inspectors also documented liquid dripping from ceilings into housing units, including onto detainee beds, as well as unsanitary and mouldy shower stalls. 

"Given a history of dangerously poor food quality in ICE detention facilities… we find the allegation that the 'reasonable accommodation' provided to detainees at Krome may have included spoiled religiously compliant food alternatives to be credible," the lawmakers said in Monday's letter. 

"As you are no doubt aware, forcing Muslim detainees to choose between eating pork and eating spoiled halal food would be a clear violation of ICE's 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards. They would also be clear violations of the civil rights and civil liberties of Muslim detainees," the lawmakers continued. 

In a post to Twitter on Monday, Representative Omar slammed the Trump administration for its ongoing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies. 

"It is unconscionable Muslim ICE detainees were reportedly forced to choose between eating pork or rotten halal food," Omar tweeted. "This is the latest betrayal of religious liberty by Trump and a reminder of the inhumanity of ICE detention".

Spoilt food

The original complaint regarding spoiled or religiously uncompliant meals at ICE's Miami facility was sent to DHS earlier this month by Muslim Advocates, Americans for Immigrant Justice, and the law firm King & Spalding LLP.

The groups said that the Krome facility's halal meals had been "persistently served spoiled and expired", leaving Muslim detainees to "choose between eating pork or eating spoiled food". 

"There is no reason, even in a pandemic, that Muslim detainees cannot receive unexpired, unspoiled halal meals, or, at the very least, pre-plated meals that do not require them to consume pork," the complaint said.

According to the groups, detainees had gotten sick from the expired food, reporting stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. 

Detainees reportedly asked the facility's chaplain for assistance in the matter, but said the chaplain responded "callously", telling them "it is what it is". 

Lawmakers on Monday noted that Krome "is not likely to be the only facility where these alleged violations are occurring" and requested that the investigation be expanded to include probes into other facilities with significant numbers of detainees that require religious accommodations.

"We also ask that you do everything in your office's power to ensure that all Muslim detainees and other detainees requiring religious dietary accommodations are given immediate access to those accommodations, and that ICE officers and employees who have violated detainees' rights are held accountable," the letter reads. 

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"The fundamental values of religious freedom and equality before the law are essential to the fabric of our democracy. We demand accountability for this treatment, and we look forward to working with your office to achieve it."

Lawmakers also asked to receive a list of facilities that have detainees who have requested religious accommodations, including the numbers of detainees requiring such accommodations and details regarding which religion such detainees follow. 

The results of any investigation on the matter should be made public, the lawmakers said.

In addition to complaints filed against ICE facilities, at least 64 of the 163 religious freedom cases filed in federal court by Muslims held under the purview of the state and federal bureaus of prisons between October 2017 and January 2019 were complaints made about dietary needs.

It is unclear how many Muslims are currently being held in ICE detention, but there are currently more than 80,000 Muslims in US prisons

Black Americans make up an overwhelmingly disproportionate share of the US prison population, as well as the Muslim inmate population.

In April, a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and the National Immigrant Justice Center found that under President Trump, "the detention machine has exploded, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue for private operators" like the Krome facility. 

Since 2017, 40 new detention facilities have opened, most of which are run by private operators, according to the report. The groups also found that at least 39 adults have died in ICE custody or immediately after being released since 2017. 

Up from just over $6bn during the Obama administration, ICE currently receives $8.1bn in annual funding from Congress, with the White House hoping to secure $9.9bn in 2021, were Trump to be re-elected.

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