Denver Newsroom, Aug 20, 2020 / 01:57 pm (CNA).- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has denied wrongdoing following allegations that Muslim detainees at a Miami facility are regularly forced to choose between spoiled halal meals and eating pork in violation of their religious beliefs.
“By habitually serving Muslim detainees pork and spoiled, expired, and cold halal meals, ICE officers at Krome have violated Muslim detainees’ rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” says an August 19 letter to officials at ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The letter was sent by attorneys for Americans for Immigrant Justice, Muslim Advocates, and King & Spalding LLP.
The groups say they have received “alarming reports” of Muslim detainees at the Krome Service Processing Center in Miami, Florida being repeatedly served pork throughout the coronavirus pandemic. For the several dozen Muslims housed at the facility, eating pork is forbidden.
The prepackaged halal meals offered as an alternative are expired and rotten, posing a health risk, the advocacy groups say.
“In recent months, Muslim detainees who have eaten those spoiled halal meals have reported experiencing stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea,” they say in their letter.
An ICE spokesman denied the allegation, telling CNA in an August 20 email, “Any claim that ICE denies reasonable and equitable opportunity for persons to observe their religious dietary practices is false.”
“ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards cover all aspects of detention, to include reasonable accommodation of religious dietary practices,” the spokesman said, pointing to the agency’s national detention standards, which include policies on religious diet accommodations.
Those policies state, “All facilities shall provide detainees requesting a religious diet a reasonable and equitable opportunity to observe their religious dietary practice, within the constraints of budget limitations and the security and orderly running of the facility, by offering a common fare menu. While each request for religious diet accommodation is to be determined on a case-by-case basis, ICE anticipates that facilities will grant these requests unless an articulable reason exists to disqualify someone for religious accommodation or the detainee’s practice poses a significant threat to the secure and orderly operation of the facility.”
However, the immigrant advocacy groups say they have received reports that the practice of offering only inedible, cold, and expired halal meals is widespread at the Krome facility.
“Substituting pork for inedible, expired food is offensive and constitutionally impermissible,” their letter charges.
It says the problem of offering expired halal meals has been ongoing since 2017, but has been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. While detainees could previously choose their meals at a cafeteria, the facility has now moved to all pre-plated meals. About 2-3 times per week, these meals contain pork, which the Muslim detainees cannot eat, the letter says.
It also charges that staff members at the facility have failed to respond to detainees’ complaints about the problem.
“In the face of the Krome staff’s indifference and inaction, Muslim detainees are left with three choices during this pandemic: eat meals that contain pork, eat meals that are spoiled, or eat nothing at all. Consequently, Muslim detainees have been forced to choose between their sincere religious beliefs and their health.”
The letter requests a response within 14 days. The immigrant advocacy groups threatened to pursue further legal action if they do not receive a response.
“As part of ensuring that Muslim detainees are provided with safe to eat, religiously compliant meals, immigration authorities must serve unexpired halal plates to Muslim detainees at Krome and all other ICE facilities,” the letter says.
“Barring the availability of halal meals, ICE must ensure that each meal at each ICE-run facility includes sufficient plates without pork or contaminated by pork so that each Muslim detainee can exercise their constitutional and statutory rights to adhere to a diet consonant with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The advocacy groups are also calling for greater personnel training on religious freedom and accommodations.
“ICE and DHS must more effectively monitor their staff to ensure that COVID-19 does not become license for ICE to violate the religious rights of its Muslim detainees,” their letter says.
Montse Alvarado, executive director of religious liberty law firm Becket, said the claims against ICE, if true, are an example of the problems that arise “when people think freedom of worship is the same as freedom of religion.”
“The American promise of freedom of religion is more than that, and religion happens outside of the four walls of a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque all the time– as we have witnessed in this pandemic,” Alvarado told CNA in an email.
“You bring your conscience with you wherever you go; it’s part of who you are no matter what situation you are in. The Constitution protects the right to the free exercise of religion, and the government has an obligation to respect that.”