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A group of immigrants at the Sherburne County jail said Tuesday that they are refusing to eat to draw attention to their demands for release until the pandemic ends.

Following hunger strikes at immigrant detention centers across the country, the protesters said in a letter to immigration authorities that they were moved to act because it is just a matter of time before the jail “is taken over by this illness that is killing people.”

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A federal judge recently rejected a March petition for emergency release by 62 immigrant detainees at the jail, including those who have stopped eating. U.S. District Judge Nancy E. Brasel ruled May 14 that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could continue keeping the petitioners at the jail during the global COVID-19 outbreak, finding that plaintiffs could not prove that authorities were acting indifferent to their medical needs or safety.

A court review found that most of the detainees were not medically at risk for the virus; the minority who were at risk were either in mandatory custody or ordered held in jail by a federal immigration judge.

“We tried getting the attention of Immigration because of the coronavirus and the court didn’t allow us to be released, so hopefully with this hunger strike we will make a difference,” said Angel Reyes, a Mexican-born 19-year-old detainee from Coon Rapids.

At least 30 inmates have stopped eating meals at the Sherburne County jail starting Tuesday morning, according to interviews with seven detainees. Under ICE rules, detainees would have to go without food for 72 hours to be classified as hunger strikers.

“There is presently no hunger strike among ICE detainees held at the Sherburne County jail,” Shawn Neudauer, ICE spokesman for Minnesota, said Tuesday in a statement.

After missing nine meals in a row, medical staff begin monitoring the detainee’s health, checking weight and vital signs once a day. Staff may be required to deliver water and three meals a day to the detainee regardless of whether he or she consumes them. Those who refuse medical care can still be forcibly treated if their life or long-term health is shown to be at risk.

Neudauer noted that Brasel was satisfied that the jail and ICE “were taking adequate precautions and had procedures in place to safeguard the health of the detainees.” The jail has no positive cases of the virus, he added.

Out of 26,660 people in ICE custody nationally, 1,312 have tested positive for COVID-19. Forty-four ICE employees have also been infected.

Seeking better protection or release to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19, immigrant detainees have launched hunger strikes in recent months at facilities in New Jersey, Arizona, California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Georgia and other states, according to immigration advocates.

This month, more than a dozen detainees were released from an ICE facility in Bakersfield, Calif., after they went on a hunger strike to protest conditions they said put them at risk of contracting COVID-19. ICE has also released more than 900 detainees during the pandemic after evaluating their potential flight risk, threat to public safety, and medical history, among other factors.

Marcel Asua, 58, said he was participating in the hunger strike even though he has poor health, including hypertension. “I have to do this hunger strike [even] if I have to die,” said Asua, who is from Cameroon. “What else can I do?”

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210