3 Congressmen Seek Investigation of INS

Times Staff Writer

Three Los Angeles-area congressmen have joined various groups in calling for a congressional investigation of alleged mistreatment of illegal aliens who staged a hunger strike to protest living conditions at the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s detention facility in El Centro last week.

In a written statement distributed at a Los Angeles press conference on Thursday, Democratic Reps. Howard L. Berman, Matthew G. Martinez and Esteban Torres said they supported efforts to launch a probe of all INS detention facilities, saying they found in El Centro “a facility that is inadequate and which incarcerates men in an inhumane manner.”

Eight men who said they participated in the hunger strike at the camp told reporters who gathered at the Press Club on Thursday that they were beaten and placed in solitary confinement to end their protest. The press conference was called by a coalition of labor, legal, religious and immigrants’ rights groups.

The men, part of a group of more than 170 illegal aliens who began the strike May 27, were released Monday after a Lutheran minister in El Centro posted a bond. They are being supported by church groups while they await immigration hearings.


Their four-day strike was peaceful until riot-equipped INS officers used force to break it up last Thursday morning, the men said.

“We were beaten with batons and tied up with plastic handcuffs so tight they stopped circulation to our hands,” said Jose Ramirez Flores of El Salvador. “They kept us lying face-down for 5 1/2 hours.”

He said that he was struck on the cheek and in the back of the head before being dragged to a solitary-confinement barracks called “The Wolf.”

Robert C. Roll, the INS agent in charge of the camp, has said that some aliens were injured when officers moved into a recreation area where the strikers were sleeping to transfer the men to barracks. Roll has denied that the aliens were beaten and said a videotape of the entire operation would confirm that. He has said agents carried their sticks in front of them to herd the aliens along.


INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson, reached in Los Angeles where he was giving a speech Thursday, said the aliens’ allegations of mistreatment and poor conditions at El Centro are “unfounded.”

“Like all detention facilities, it is clean, well kept, and there is good food,” Nelson said. “But you must remember this is a detention facility.”

Berman, Torres and Martinez were not present at the press conference. However, their statement called medical conditions in the camp “an outrage.” Only one doctor is on hand to treat the camp’s 400 detainees, the congressmen said.

And the former strikers said that only aspirin is dispensed, regardless of the medical complaint. No doctor is available on weekends, they added.


Nelson, however, said aliens in the camp “probably get better medical service than many Americans do outside.”

The congressmen also wrote that the detainees are forced to stand in a dirt yard for 12 hours a day in a desert sun “that even farmers” avoid. “There is little shade, and access to barracks is denied,” they said.

Sister Jo’Ann De Quattro, a Sanctuary Movement activist, said at the press conference that the camp “is not a detention facility. It is a concentration camp.”

De Quattro chairs the sanctuary committee of the Southern California Ecumenical Council’s Interfaith Task Force on Central America. She said she was in the camp two years ago with a group supporting hunger strikers protesting the same conditions then.


“I think it’s an absolute abhorrence, and it is appalling to me that after two years the same conditions don’t exist,” she said. “They’re worse.”

‘Feeling a Crunch’

Nelson called reaction by supporters of the hunger strikers “sort of ridiculous. Maybe it shows they’re feeling a crunch--that some of these interest groups that want to support illegal aliens would just as soon have no enforcement at all. They’d like it that way.”

Times staff writers Laurie Becklund and H. G. Reza contributed to this story.