Immigrants' rights groups want the state to investigate the death of Amar Mergensana, who died Saturday after an 86-day hunger strike while in ICE custody.
UPDATE: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the death of a Russian detainee on Saturday resulted from an earlier suicide attempt, and wasn’t related to an extended hunger strike as claimed by an immigrant-rights group.
Local immigrants’-rights advocates are demanding an investigation into the death of a Russian asylum-seeker after he went on a hunger strike for almost three months at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Amar Mergensana, 40, was pronounced dead at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at Tacoma’s St. Joseph Medical Center, according to the Pierce County medical examiner. Mergensana had been moved from the detention center to St. Joseph on Nov. 15 after being found unconscious. Media reports at the time erroneously reported that Mergensana had died.
The Pierce County medical examiner has yet to conduct an autopsy or determine the cause of death, said Ryann Sale, an investigator with the Medical Examiner’s Office. A spokesperson with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the agency plans to issue a statement about Mergensana’s death by Monday.
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In a statement issued last Wednesday, ICE said Mergensana had remained in good physical health and had been monitored daily by medical professionals. The agency said he had started eating fruit and drinking meal replacement shakes on Sept. 19 and had had consumed enough calories by Oct. 16 to be taken off hunger strike status. However, ICE added, it didn’t release the timeline of his strike status because he threatened to resume the hunger strike should if its end was made public.
Mergensana came to the United States in December, crossing into the country from Mexico near San Diego, according to Maru Mora-Villalpando, an organizer with The Northwest Detention Center Resistance (NWDC Resistance).
Mergensana told advocates he was fleeing violence in Russia. He “said he was afraid of going back, and that he was afraid of the [Russian] government,” said Mora-Villalpando, whose organization met with Mergensana during his 86-day hunger strike.
Mergensana applied for asylum soon after crossing the border, but was detained by ICE and sent to the Tacoma detention center to await deportation, according to a statement from NWDC Resistance. There, Mergensana started a hunger strike to protest conditions at the center, a privately run facility owned by the company GEO Group.
Mora-Villalpando and other immigration advocates blamed ICE and the Northwest Detention Center for Mergensana’s death. Despite being on a hunger strike, Mora-Villalpando said Mergensana was kept in solitary confinement at the detention center rather than at a medical facility where his condition could have been observed.
Mora-Villalpando said her organization wants Mergensana’s death to be investigated by the state as well as by the city of Tacoma, which has licensing authority over the detention center. She said the group was holding a vigil for Mergensana Sunday night at St. Joseph Medical Center and was planning a second vigil at 7 p.m. Monday at the detention center.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the last name of Amar Mergensana. In a statement Monday, ICE refers to the detainee as Mergensana Amar. A spokeswoman for ICE said the agency is aware that some local immigrant rights groups identify him as Amar Mergensana.
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