An alleged beating is generating new criticism for the Northwest Detention Center, which holds people living in the country without legal permission.
It was close to midnight on April 13 at the Northwest Detention Center, the federal facility in Tacoma that holds undocumented immigrants apprehended by the government, when a detainee was finishing his shift mopping the floor.
The detainee and an officer got into a heated argument, according to cellmates who have provided written statements to lawyers and activist groups working on their behalf. The officer was upset about stains left on the floor and insisted the detainee keep working.
That didn’t sit well with Alfredo Rodriguez, a Honduran immigrant in the cell, who 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 four statements provided to The Seattle Times, the officer called for backup, bringing a flurry of fellow guards who knocked Rodriguez to the ground.
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“I saw when one guard had Mr. Rodriguez by the hair and slammed his face on the concrete floor,” said detainee Arturo Lopez-Aguilera, in a statement.
Another detainee, Jose Ulises Lara-Gracian, interviewed by phone through a translator Tuesday after being released pending his court date, said one officer did this repeatedly while another kicked Rodriguez in his side. Then, the officers roughly took Rodriguez away, bumping his head on a stairway. Yet other detainees said they saw Rodriguez, described as in his 60s, bleeding.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman Andrew Muñoz disputes 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.”
The incident has sparked new criticism of the center, already under fire by activists and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith after a series of hunger strikes last year by detainees protesting what they said was abysmal food and an exploitative $1-a-day work program. This latest controversy comes as politicians continue to debate immigration reform, including the role of locking up undocumented immigrants in places that look, for all intents and purposes, like a prison.
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.
Smith, whose 9th District includes part of Tacoma, said in a statement that he is very concerned about the incident. He said his staff has contacted ICE and the Department of Homeland Security multiple times and has yet to receive answers. “The lack of transparency is unacceptable.”
The Bellevue Democrat, who visited the detention center last year during a hunger strike, called the incident “yet another example of how broken our detention center is.” Smith has called for alternatives to detention, such as telephonic reporting. Last week, he reintroduced a bill that would create new standards and oversight for detention centers, many of which are run by private, for-profit corporations.
Meanwhile, lawyers and immigrant-advocacy groups are pressing for federal and local investigations of the April 13 incident. Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said his organization has filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of a client who had witnessed the scuffle.
The organization has also filed a report with the Tacoma Police Department. Barón said he believed the officers’ conduct amounted to an assault.
Loretta Cool, a department spokeswoman, said the case is awaiting investigation. She noted that the department has not been able to contact the alleged victim. He has since been deported, according to Muñoz, of ICE.
Jennifer Lesmez, a Yakima attorney, said she plans to contact Tacoma police to give detectives the names of six of her clients who witnessed the incident. She contends it’s not just Rodriguez who was the victim of crime; so were her clients.
Some detainees say they were threatened with retaliation if they complained. “We have been told that if we do not ‘behave’ it may affect our cases,” said Jose Bruno-Parra in a statement. Detainee Lara-Gracian, who identified himself as a former Mexican police officer seeking asylum from a violent part of his home country, said he feared being charged with “insubordination” and sent back to a place where he could be assassinated.
Muñoz said ICE policies forbid retaliation. He did not comment on specific allegations in this case. “What we have heard are anecdotal stories,” he said. “We need individuals to come forward.”
If they do, it actually might help their immigration cases. Lesmez maintainedthat the threats of retaliation amount to “tampering with witnesses.” That’s a crime, and if her clients are victims of that, they could be eligible for a “U visa,” which allow immigrants who suffer certain kinds of mental or physical abuse to stay in this country.