A group of immigrant detainees at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, N.J., are on the fifth day of a hunger strike to demand that federal authorities free them so they can await the outcome of their deportation cases at home amid the current coronavirus surge.

A spokeswoman for the Bergen County Sheriff's Office, which operates the jail, said this is the second hunger strike in the facility this month. The seven immigrants currently refusing food are being monitored, she said. One detainee has participated in both hunger strikes. 

Bergen County has a multimillion dollar contract with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to jail New Yorkers and New Jerseyans who are in court proceedings for alleged immigration violations. About 200 people are currently detained there. A spokesperson for Newark's ICE field office didn't answer questions about either of the hunger strikes. 

Listen to Matt Katz's report on WNYC:

The ICE detainees on strike were recently moved from the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, without notice or explanation. They say their new unit at the Bergen County Jail is infested with rats and say the medical care team is unresponsive, which jail officials deny. Due to COVID-19 protocols they are also largely confined to cells; at Essex, they lived in more spacious dorms.

The strike, though, is squarely aimed at ICE. The striking detainees, particularly those who suffer from medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, say they want to fight their deportation cases from the outside, because adhering to social distancing guidelines is difficult in the jail. Immigrant detainees face civil immigration violations which, by law, don't require imprisonment. 

The hunger strike seems to be inspired by the case of former Bergen detainee Marcial Morales Garcia, who went on hunger strike earlier this month after ICE refused to release him despite his diabetes and major depressive disorder, which he said put him at a greater risk of COVID-19. He said he didn't eat for nine days, though he did drink juice and water, and he spent most of the time in an isolated unit. 

"I almost died," he said. "I was ready to die. I thought I was going to die. But thank God I didn't." Morales Garcia’s strike ended when he was released by ICE last week with an ankle monitor. A spokesman for ICE didn't give a reason for the release.

But the fact that he got out seems to be spurring on the latest hunger strike, which detainees said began last Friday night.  

"ICE has no reason to keep us in jail," said hunger striker Carlos Gomez, a chef at a restaurant in Collingswood, NJ, who arrived from Guatemala about two decades ago. "We are not criminals." Gomez said he was detained after a stint in jail that did not result in a conviction. 

Gomez said he is dizzy from the lack of food, and he gets nauseous after drinking water. "We want to make ICE care a little bit more about us," he said.

Aware of the spike in coronavirus in New Jersey, the striking detainees are seeking to have their cases reviewed as part of a federal injunction mandating that ICE identifies medically vulnerable detainees who can be released due to COVID-19. Back in March, ICE said the first ICE detainee in the country to test positive for the coronavirus was at the Bergen County Jail.

In 2018, a Ukrainian immigrant who went on hunger strike at the North Jersey facility was transferred to El Paso, TX, where his strike ended when a judge ordered that he be force fed up the nose multiple times a day while being held down by guards.

In response to questions about the hunger strikes, ICE released a generic statement: “Qualified medical personnel at each facility explain the negative health effects of not eating to detainees engaged in a hunger strike and closely monitor their food and water intake. Qualified medical personnel also continue clinical, mental health and laboratory monitoring to maintain the person’s health.”

Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees, hate, and national security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.