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Aliens Claim Beatings During Strike at El Centro INS Center

Times Staff Writer

The seven aliens who led a weeklong hunger strike at the detention camp here deny that the protest was organized by their attorneys and say they acted because camp officials failed to make changes promised after an earlier hunger strike.

In interviews after their release from the detention center Monday, the aliens said that the strike was peaceful until riot-equipped officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service used force to break up the strike last Thursday morning. Robert C. Roll, agent in charge of the camp, said that some aliens were injured when officers in riot gear tried to move the strikers to barracks from the recreation area where they were sleeping.

But Roll denied charges by the aliens and their attorneys that INS officers beat them with night sticks. INS officials say that 25 officers were used to move aliens and that the action was videotaped.

Walter Chu, one of the seven strikers bailed out on Monday, said that aliens at the camp had conducted a five-day hunger strike in February, just before a scheduled visit by a congressional delegation, to protest conditions at the camp. Chu said that the aliens decided to strike again last week because the changes promised after the February strike were not made.

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The aliens were protesting overcrowding, poor sanitation and violations of their legal rights at the camp. Thom Riehle, an assistant to U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles), said that the delegation heard the same complaints during the February visit and passed the grievances on to INS officials, including Western Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell.

Riehle said that “over and over again” Berman heard complaints by aliens who said that regardless of their maladies, the public health doctor at the camp prescribed only aspirin.

“We heard a lot of complaints ranging from not being able to see attorneys to not having enough time to eat,” said Riehle. “But it was the overcrowding and lack of medical facilities that really appalled him (Berman).”

Riehle said that the camp, which held about 500 aliens when the strike began last week, is served by one doctor and two nurses, but that INS officials are trying to get funding to increase the medical staff to 17, including a doctor, dentist, seven nurses and other assistants. The 12-year-old camp was built to hold 344 men.

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Riehle said INS officials sent a letter to the congressional delegation after the visit, promising to try to improve conditions. Those changes have not been made, partly because the INS does not have the money, Ezell said.

At one time, the INS said that 175 aliens were striking. But the number quickly dwindled after agents move them from the recreation area. By Monday, only seven men were still not eating, and they were bailed out by a local minister. Four of the men have applied for political asylum, and three are contesting deportation.

Jose Alberto Ramirez Flores, a Salvadoran refugee, said the immigration officers charged into the recreation room about 5 a.m. Thursday. Flores, who said that he fled El Salvador after receiving death threats from leftist guerrillas, suffered facial and back injuries in the confrontation and was later taken by INS officials to El Centro Community Hospital for treatment.

“We woke up when someone yelled that La Migra was coming in force. One of our companions told us to be calm, not to be afraid because we were being peaceful. We weren’t being violent, so what could they do to us? When they saw we were not going to put up a fight, they began yelling and pushing us around,” said Flores.

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He said that he attempted to bolt through a door and was struck on the back of the neck, head and face with a night stick. He said that the agent then pulled him up by the back of the shirt and dragged him outside, laying him face-down on the asphalt.

“The man put his right knee on the small of my back and his left boot rubbed hard against the side of my face,” said Flores. INS officers used plastic straps to tie the strikers’ hands behind their backs.

Flores said that he then was placed in a two-man isolation cell.

Each of the seven men interviewed in El Centro this week related similar stories of rough treatment by INS agents, including beatings on the back with night sticks.

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INS district director James Turnage said that videotapes of the operation do not show any wrongdoing by immigration officers. “This thing was handled in a highly professional manner and through that handling we averted a riot out there,” Turnage said.

Flores’ injuries have resulted in a bitter denunciation of the INS by a Brawley doctor who examined him at the camp and who later charged that immigration agents lied to her. Dr. Patricia Shreves volunteered to visit the camp Friday to examine the strikers after hearing rumors that some of the men were badly injured.

Shreves signed a statement saying that the men were basically in good condition but noted that some strikers complained of being hit in the back with night sticks. In the statement, Shreves also noted that Flores denied that he was hit by the agents.

However, when Shreves met with Flores after he was bailed out on Monday, she charged that the immigration agent who translated for her lied about what Flores was saying.

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“I think it’s a despicable thing to lie about a patient’s medical history,” Shreves said. “It’s disgusting. It really upsets me.” Flores was taken to the hospital for X-rays the day after Shreves examined him.

Roll, the agent in charge of the camp, said he was present during the interview and denied that the interpreter had misled Shreves.

The men who were bailed out are staying at a group shelter in Brawley awaiting deportation proceedings.

In an interview this week, Ezell derided the strikers and their charges that the detention facility is unfit for humans.

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“We’re not running a resort. It’s not a dude ranch. These people have entered the U.S. illegally. They’re fortunate enough to go through the legal process in this country. No other country in the world provides this opportunity. In any other place they would have been thrown out as soon as they got in,” said Ezell.

The strikers also demanded a law library. Riehle said that INS officials promised the congressional delegation in February that they would look into the possibility of buying law books for the camp. But on Tuesday Ezell suggested that the books should be bought with private funds rather than at taxpayer expense.

“We don’t have taxpayer funds to buy lawbooks for illegal aliens to jimmy our laws so they can stay in this country. That’s why they have these activist attorneys,” said Ezell.

Regarding applications for asylum filed by four of the final seven strikers, Ezell said, “Just because you’re displaced in this country, you’re not a refugee. Just because you end up in this country, you’re not a refugee. You’re a refugee when the government of the United States determines you’re a refugee.”

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