Officials said several hundred detainees were declining meals Sunday at the federal Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, which supporters said was part of a hunger strike that started Friday.
About 330 detainees of the 1,300 housed at the Tideflats facility denied meals as of noon Sunday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a release.
“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to express their opinion without interference,” spokesman Andrew Muñoz said in a statement. “While we continue to work with Congress to enact commonsense immigration reform, ICE remains committed to sensible, effective immigration enforcement.”
Immigration attorney Sandy Restrepo said the detainees were striking against deportations and for better treatment from guards and better working conditions and food at the center.
“They get paid only $1 a day,” said Restrepo, who was outside the facility Sunday with several others in support of the detainees. “It’s respect. And they say that a lot of the guards don’t speak Spanish, so they get ignored. Or they’re treated with discrimination. They’re not treated fairly.”
She said she last spoke with some of her clients who were striking Saturday, but that it wasn’t clear how many of the roughly 50 detainees she represents were denying meals.
“They are doing well; they’re in high spirits,” she said. “They are drinking water, and they’re willing to strike for as long as possible.”
She said the hunger strike started with 1,200 detainees, but that it’s been hard to keep track of the number participating, because communicating with detainees has been difficult.
“A lot of the people striking have no phone privileges,” she said. “We’ve seen that they’re getting punished because of their involvement in the strike. We’ve heard that either phone privileges are taken away completely, or just very short conversations. They’re being put into isolation with no access to medical care.”
All strikers were being closely monitored by center staff and medical personnel, the agency said.
Areas of the center housing detainees with violent criminal histories were put on lockdown as a safety precaution, which means privileges such as phone calls can be restricted, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement statement said. Those detainees under lockdown still have controlled access to medical facilities, according to the release. The agency did not specify what prompted the lockdown.
ICE operating standards include a protocol for responding to hunger strikes, which says in part: “Any detainee who does not eat for 72 hours will be referred to the medical department for evaluation and possible treatment.” And: “The clinical medical authority may recommend involuntary treatment when clinical assessment and available laboratory results indicate the detainee’s weakening condition threatens the life or long-term health of the detainee.”
Restrepo said the strike started Friday, because that’s when detainees who are going to be deported are put into isolation prior to deportation.
The strike is related to a rally that happened outside the center Feb. 24, in which about two dozen people chained themselves together and blocked entrances to the building to protest deportations.
“According to family members and people currently detained, they were inspired by that action,” Restrepo said of the hunger strikers.
She gathered with a handful of supporters, friends and family members of the detainees outside the detention center Sunday. The group had been taking shifts since Friday to show their support, she said.
“At the biggest we had about 100 people,” she said. “People were coming in and out.”
Many of those people were part of the group that protested Feb. 24, Restrepo added.
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268