Since 2017, Muslim detainees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at the Krome detention center in Miami-Dade County have reported being served expired and rotten halal meals.
The detainees have told immigrant-rights activists and lawyers that at times they've gone without eating because the religiously compliant meals have made them sick with stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Most recently, Muslim detainees report that officials at Krome have repeatedly served them pork or pork-based meals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing them to choose between their religion and their nourishment.
"Prior to the pandemic, detainees could choose what they ate and pick other things that were available," says Nimra Azmi, a staff attorney at the national civil-rights organization Muslim Advocates. "But now during the pandemic, all the meals are being served pre-plated. Because the religious meals are spoiled, two to three times a week these people are forced to eat meals that are rotten, violate their faith, or eat nothing at all."
Muslim Advocates, the legal advocacy organization Americans for Immigrant Justice, and the law firm King & Spalding yesterday sent a letter to ICE and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security demanding that the agencies "immediately remedy the discriminatory treatment suffered by detainees at Krome and other ICE detention facilities across the country." The organizations say ICE is violating Muslim detainees' rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits any U.S. government agency, department, or official from hindering the exercise of a person's religion.
Lily Hartmann, a human-rights advocate for Americans for Immigrant Justice, says the detainees asked officials for other food and tried to address the issues on their own before turning to advocates. The letter says detainees' complaints to detention staff have gone ignored and that a chaplain dismissed them by saying, "It is what it is."
"These individuals have repeatedly asked officials at Krome for help through grievance procedures," Hartmann tells New Times. "They know these are Muslim detainees being served pork. To us, it seems like they simply don't care. I also think it's a reminder that the broader immigration system is designed to be callous toward the humanity of those in its custody."
In an emailed statement, an ICE spokesperson said that the agency's detention standards include "reasonable accommodation" of religious dietary practices.
"Any claim that ICE denies reasonable and equitable opportunity for persons to observe their religious dietary practices is false," the spokesperson said.
The letter to ICE and DHS says that before the pandemic, Krome detainees could choose their meals from the cafeteria. Now, Krome has switched to a "satellite-feeding program," in which meals are pre-packaged and served in the housing units.
Hartmann collected anecdotes and quotes from detainees inside Krome. One detainee said, "Now, you do not know if you are eating pork because they rarely say what they are serving. You are not told what the food is when they hand it to you. There is no menu posted in the pod. If you do find out that you are being served pork, there is nothing you can do about it, and you don't get to eat meat that meal."
A second detainee described the halal meals, which according to Muslim Advocates and Americans for Immigrant Justice have been "persistently rotten and expired," as a "chili gravy substance that comes out of a plastic package and looks like dog food."
The detainee said the halal food gives him diarrhea. "I have tried to send it back and ask for something else, but they say they have nothing else to give me. So I often go without eating."
A third said submitting grievances gets them nowhere.
Before the pandemic, lawyers and advocates were able to visit Krome and other ICE detention centers in person to talk with detainees about their cases and the conditions in which they're being held. Now, they rely on phone calls. Hartmann says she's regularly in contact with a number of Muslim detainees from Somalia, Tunisia, and Jamaica. Some have been transferred to Krome from detention centers in Georgia, New Jersey, and Minnesota. Their time in custody has ranged from one to three years.
Hartmann says Somali detainees at Krome have faced "a long and abusive journey" in the immigration system. Some of them who are still in custody were on a botched deportation flight to Somalia in 2017, during which they were reportedly shackled at the wrists and ankles for more than 48 hours, beaten by guards, and forced to urinate in bottles or on themselves when the toilet on the plane overflowed.
The religious violation of being served pork or spoiled halal food, Hartmann says, is just one more abuse these detainees have suffered.
"Here you see a coupling of faith-based issues and the fact that many of the people who are dealing with this halal food problem are also Black immigrants," Hartmann says. "This is one thing of many they've had to go through."
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Azmi, the staff attorney for Muslim Advocates, says detainees rely on their faith to keep them centered and "remind themselves that they are people with dignity." She says having to choose between rotten food, pork, or no food robs detainees of their physical and religious sustenance.
In the letter, the groups demand that ICE provide meals to Muslim detainees that are safe to eat and religiously compliant. The groups also call for training and disciplining of staff involved in the "systemic denial of detainees' rights" at the Krome facility.
"Every day, every meal is an opportunity for these people to be denied their right to practice their faith and their right to eat food," Azmi says. "We hope ICE will take this seriously."