Immigration detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Washington state have been on a hunger strike since Friday, in protest of deportations led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At one point more than half of the detainees at the facility were refusing meals, citing inhumane conditions. The Center, which houses 1,300 people, is run by the GEO Group, the leading global supplier of detention, correctional, and community reentry services with 98 facilities worldwide.
The strike was held in protest for better treatment and food, as well as an increase in the $1 per day wages for kitchen duty and janitorial work, and reduced cost of groceries at the facility’s commissary. Represented by Labor Network, Not One More Deportation (see video below), the immigrants are calling for an end to deportations.
The founder of the Latino Advocacy, Maru Mora Villalpando, elaborates that the actions of the immigration detainees is in response to the lack of immigration reform here in the United States. Group demands include issuing of an executive order from President Obama to halt deportations, as well as responding to the aforementioned concern of adequate food, as well as, safer working conditions in the facility.
Once detainees have refused meals for 72 hours, prison officials are obligated to refer them for medical evaluation, according to ICE. As of recent reports, the 330 to (in some reports) 550 on hunger strike had not yet reached that point. The Latino Advocacy places the number on hunger strike at 1,200 and says that they will continue to demonstrate until Tuesday.
The reason that Friday was the first day of the protest is because that is the day that guards separate those being deported on Monday from the others. Last month, the Latino Advocacy organized protests outside the facility. This inspired the detainees inside the Center to go on hunger strike. In solidarity, the Latino Advocacy will return to outside the Northwest Detention Center to demonstrate every day until Tuesday.
The Northwest Detention Center has multiple levels of security – from minimum to maximum. ICE stated that some immigration detainees in the Washington state center have violent criminal backgrounds. This includes murder, rape, and gang violence. Those detainees are placed on lockdown as an extra “precaution” during the hunger strike. Immigrant-rights activists say that, in fact, more than 20 detainees have been segregated into one cell without bathroom breaks, in retaliation for leading the hunger strike.
An ICE spokesperson could not comment immediately on those statements. However, he said that ICE fully respects the rights of detainees to express their opinion without intervention. Villalpando responds that detaining people without a social security number to work for the government is exploitation of labor. And, he says that the government allows the GEO Group to do this.
At the center of the debate is a bipartisan immigration reform bill that was obstructed last summer in the House of Representatives. As a result, many advocacy groups have taken up the cause. This has led to a nationwide campaign of coordinated protests – among them, hunger strikes – against immigration detainees being locked up within detention centers like the one in Washington state. Other states that have such facilities and have had similar protests are across the U.S., in Illinois, Arizona, Virginia, and California.
By Fern Remedi-Brown