It was close to midnight on April 13 at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma when a detainee was finishing his shift mopping the floor.
The detainee and an officer got into a heated argument, according to cellmates at the federal facility on the Tideflats. which holds undocumented immigrants apprehended by the government.
In written statements to lawyers and activist groups the cellmates gave this account of what happened next:
The officer, upset about stains left on the floor, insisted the detainee keep working. That didn’t sit well with Alfredo Rodriguez, a Honduran immigrant in the cell.
Rodriguez, described as in his 60s, loudly complained about the officer’s treatment of his cellmate, as well as general conditions in the detention center.
That’s when the situation escalated. According to the statements from four detainees, the officer called for backup, bringing a flurry of fellow guards who knocked Rodriguez to the ground.
“I saw when one guard had Mr. Rodriguez by the hair and slammed his face on the concrete floor,” detainee Arturo Lopez-Aguilera said in a statement.
One officer did this repeatedly while another kicked Rodriguez in his side, said detainee Jose Ulises Lara-Gracian, who was interviewed by phone through a translator Tuesday after being released pending his court date.
Then the officers roughly took Rodriguez away, bumping his head on a stairway, Lara-Gracian said. Other detainees said they saw Rodriguez bleeding.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Andrew Muñoz disputed the account.
“Detention center officers used a standard arrest technique to safely take a detainee to the ground in order to gain his compliance when he refused to be voluntarily escorted out of the housing unit,” Muñoz said in a statement.
“This came after the detainee began shouting at his housing unit officer and refused to obey multiple orders to return to his bunk.”
ICE medical staff examined Rodriguez immediately, Muñoz said, and he was found to have only a “superficial scratch.”
The Florida-based GEO Group, a private corporation that runs the facility for the federal government, declined to comment on the incident “as a matter of policy,” but said in a statement the detention center “provides a “safe, secure and humane residential environment.”
At a protest outside the detention center Tuesday, a group called the Northwest Detention Center Resistance called attention to what it described as the “beating” of an “elderly” man.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, whose Ninth District includes part of Tacoma, said in a statement he is very concerned about the incident. The Democrat said his staff has contacted ICE and the federal Department of Homeland Security multiple times and has yet to receive answers.
Lawyers and immigrant-advocacy groups are pressing for federal and local investigations of the incident.
Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said his organization has filed a complaint with Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of a client who saw the scuffle.
The organization also filed a report with Tacoma police. Barón said the detention center officers’ conduct amounted to an assault.
Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said the case was awaiting investigation. She noted that the department has not been able to contact Rodriguez, who has been deported, according to Muñoz.
Some detainees say they were threatened with retaliation if they complained, said Yakima attorney Jennifer Lesmez, who represents six detainees who witnessed the incident.
“We have been told that if we do not ‘behave,’ it may affect our cases,” detainee Jose Bruno-Parra said in a statement.
Muñoz said ICE policies forbid retaliation. He did not comment on specific allegations in this case.