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Hunger strikers sue to prohibit forced feeding at Tacoma immigration detention center

Hunger strikers sue to prevent forced feeding at immigration detention center in Tacoma

Maru Mora Villalpando talks to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Tacoma, about a lawsuit filed by hunger striking detainees at the immigration detention center in Tacoma. She is with an activist group that protests the detention center.
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Maru Mora Villalpando talks to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Tacoma, about a lawsuit filed by hunger striking detainees at the immigration detention center in Tacoma. She is with an activist group that protests the detention center.

Hunger strikers, including one who reportedly hasn’t eaten for nearly a month, have sued to prevent being force-fed as they protest conditions at the immigration detention center on the Tacoma Tideflats.

Northwest Detention Center detainees Viacheslav Poliakov and Raquel Martinez Diaz also asked a federal court in Tacoma last week to keep hunger strikers from being threatened with segregation or being put in solitary confinement for their protests.

U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle denied their request for a temporary order Wednesday that would have done those things. It’s not clear what that means for their request for a permanent order. The court referred the case to another judge for further proceedings.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement argues it hasn’t requested force-feeding orders for either detainee but that it shouldn’t be prevented from doing so.

If the agency did ask for an order, it would be “a necessary intervention so ICE can safeguard the health and well-being of its detainees,” the department said in a response to the lawsuit. “Furthermore, courts in this District, including this Court, have granted such orders on at least six occasions.”

Martinez Diaz has been eating regularly, and Poliakov is accepting fluids and medical monitoring, ICE told the court.

Supporters said Tuesday that at least several detainees are on hunger strikes — one joined Sept. 13 — and that Poliakov has not eaten for 28 days.

That seemed to match ICE’s timeline for Poliakov’s hunger strike, which the agency said it learned of Aug. 22.

One of the strikers’ main demands is better access to medical care, Maru Mora Villalpando, a representative of an activist group that protests the facility and supports the striking detainees, told reporters Tuesday outside the federal courthouse in Tacoma.

She said they also want “reunification with their children, humane treatment and ending the retaliation for joining the hunger strike, as well as getting minimum wage for the work that they perform there.”

Detainees have held other hunger strikes in recent years to protest conditions at the facility, which is owned and operated by a private contractor, the GEO Group.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 13, argues that Poliakov and Martinez Diaz were using their First Amendment rights “by engaging in a hunger strike to express their views about national immigration policies and how detainees were being treated at the NWDC.”

Poliakov is 23, and Martinez Diaz is about 40, their attorneys said.

Poliakov is a Russian citizen, who has been at the detention center since April 3, ICE told the court. He was ordered deported Aug. 30 and has until Oct. 1 to appeal the decision.

Martinez Diaz is a Mexican citizen taken into ICE custody Aug. 16 and is awaiting deportation proceedings, according to the agency.

Guards violated the pair’s constitutional rights, the detainees allege, by threatening them with solitary confinement and forced feeding. The guards also allegedly said they’d cause problems for their immigration cases.

“Those threats have been fulfilled in the past,” Edward Alexander, one of the attorneys representing the detainees, told reporters. “They are not idle threats.”

Such threats caused many other detainees to quit the hunger strike recently, he said.

Asked about Poliakov’s condition, another attorney for the detainees, Junga Subedar, told reporters, “He’s really in bad shape. ... He is adamant about going on, continuing on the hunger strike, even though it weakens him every day.”

ICE’s court filing said Poliakov’s reasons for his hunger strike were “his dissatisfaction with the food, his insomnia and his difficulty in retaining an attorney to prepare for his upcoming immigration court date.”

He’s in a medical unit, where he has access to a telephone, recreation yard, television and electronic tablets, the agency said.

ICE defines a hunger strike as when someone misses nine meals in a row, which officials told the court is not the case with Martinez Diaz.

Her attorney, Alexander, wrote the court Wednesday that she had ended her strike Monday after an encounter with a guard. She wants to strike again in the future but fears retaliation, he said.

The lawsuit said Martinez Diaz had only eaten bread since Aug. 30, to be able to take medications, and shortly after she started the strike a guard told her she would be taken to a judge, who would order that she be fed through a tube in her nose.

ICE argued that the purpose of immigration detention is to make sure detainees are present when they’re to be deported.

“The public interest would not be served by allowing detainees to either die or medically deteriorate while detained,” ICE wrote the court.

Another argument officials gave: “If detainees are allowed to die or suffer permanent harm to themselves as a result of a hunger strike, other detainees will likely infer that ICE is indifferent to their well-being, thereby increasing the likelihood of disorderly conduct.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell
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