Nine people detained at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma have joined in a hunger strike to protest what they say are unclean conditions in the detention center amid worries about COVID spread, according to an advocacy organization that’s been in touch with the protesters.
The strike began Friday, according to the group La Resistencia, at the fenced facility that is among the largest immigration detention centers in the U.S. The center has capacity for about 1,500 people held as they go through immigration-status proceedings.
The detention center is operated by the for-profit GEO Group in partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The hunger strikers have asked for better cleaning of the facility and units, more nutritious food, better access to medical services and jobs that pay a minimum wage.
“Their demands show how bad the environment is,” said Maru Mora Villalpando of La Resistencia, a Washington organization led by undocumented people that advocates for the closing of the Northwest detention center. “They can’t sleep, they aren’t getting medical care, and combined with that, they are in the place 24-7. It’s filthy.”
In a statement, GEO said the company has taken steps to mitigate COVID risks through cleaning, social distancing and testing. In total, 396 COVID cases have been reported at the detention center among detainees throughout the pandemic, according to an ICE data dashboard that provides case numbers for its facilities.
GEO said its centers, including the Northwest detention center, have continual access to physicians, dentists and mental-health professionals.
“Ensuring the health and safety of all those entrusted to our care and our employees has always been our No. 1 priority,” Christopher V. Ferreira, manager of corporate relations, said in an email.
Mora Villalpando said protesters reported being threatened by officers, though ICE disputes this, saying in a statement it “fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference.”
Per ICE’s detention standards, any detainee who refuses food for 72 hours may be referred for medical evaluation, and may be isolated “when medical advisable” for monitoring. One protester, Mora Villalpando said, hasn’t had contact with the outside group since he was taken into the medical unit for treatment. He had broken a molar while eating before the hunger strike began and has a toe infection, she said.
There have been several hunger strikes from immigrants detained at the center in recent years.
In 2017, as many as 750 people refused meals for multiple days. A 2020 watchdog report by the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights found the facility held people in solitary confinement on average more than any other ICE facility, and contended that it held people on hunger strikes in solitary confinement. A GEO group spokesperson said at the time that it strongly rejected the allegations.