Four detainees still not eating at Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center

Staff writerMarch 12, 2014 

With four detainees on the sixth day of a hunger strike, an unrelated court ruling brought some movement on one of the demands of protesters at the federal immigration detention center in Tacoma.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones ruled late Tuesday that one category of immigrants can’t be held indefinitely without getting a bond hearing, in which a judge can set conditions for a detainee to be released while his or her case is reviewed.

Jones ruled on a complaint filed in federal court in August by three detainees no longer at the Tacoma facility.

Access to bonds is one of the issues hunger strikers have raised, in addition to deportations and working conditions, food and treatment by guards at the center.

The court ruling applies to a specific group of detainees, said attorney Matt Adams with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. It’s hard to say how many people the decision affects, but it’s not the majority of the 1,300 detainees at the Northwest Detention Center, he said.

Specifically, the judge said a rule requiring mandatory detainment for immigrants convicted of certain crimes didn’t apply to people who had finished criminal sentences, returned home and years later were arrested and held at the center without bond hearings.

The rule applies only to immigrants arrested immediately after serving their sentence, the judge said.

“If someone puts up $60,000 for release, I’m sure they’re not a flight risk,” said Santos Murillo, a detainee who called The News Tribune to talk about the strike. “There are some people who have been here a year, a year and half, two years, and they’re not getting any bonds.”

Deportation officers were looking into concerns detainees have, such as bond amounts, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said, adding that many issues had been addressed, and others needed to be handled by immigration judges with the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Murillo said he ended his hunger strike Sunday because it was more important for him to prepare for his immigration case in the facility’s law library. He said that during his strike he had been eating one Top Ramen soup a day from the commissary. Some strikers had been going entirely without food, he said.

The strike started Friday, and by Tuesday 27 detainees who said they hadn’t eaten for 72 hours were under medical observation away from the general population, ICE officials said. Of those protesters, 22 ate breakfast and lunch and were returned to the general population, and five remained under medical observation, the agency said.

One of the five had eaten two meals and was returned to the general population Wednesday.

“Since Friday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and detention center management have been communicating with detainees, both through in-person visits to the detention center’s pods and using the center’s regular written communication channels,” local agency spokesman Andrew Munoz said.

“Several issues that have been brought to management’s attention are being addressed, including adding more items to the commissary list and exploring ways to reduce prices.”

Supporters said Wednesday they didn’t think their concerns had been addressed.

“We don’t think there has been any progress made,” supporter Maru Mora Villalpando said.

The strikers told family members on the phone Wednesday that they had been instructed to shower, because they’re going to be transferred, she said, though they didn’t know where they were to be taken.

Veronica Noriega of Seattle said her husband, Ramon Mendoza, was one of the four remaining strikers. She said he was doing well when she spoke with him on the phone Wednesday morning.

He and the other strikers were together, segregated from other detainees, she said.

Tuesday evening, a couple hundred supporters rallied outside the center with chants such as: “No estan solos” (They’re not alone), “Soy indocumentado” (I’m undocumented), “Si se puede” (Yes we can).

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