After three months in Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center, Mexican-born Jose Moreno was headed to Tukwila in the rainy, early morning of February 24 to get fingerprinted for a visa application that might allow him to stay in this country. Suddenly he saw a woman blocking the van that was taking him out of the facility, which holds immigrants being considered for deportation. Handcuffed, the 25-year-old couldn’t get up to see the nine others who were attempting to blockade the detention center in protest of immigration policies. But he heard them. “You are not alone,” the protesters chanted in Spanish. “It felt really good,” recalls Moreno.“They were supporting us.”
Taken to the detention center last fall after he was arrested in Bothell on a DUI charge, Moreno, who walked across the border seven years ago, has since been released on bond pending consideration of his case. Speaking last week through an interpreter at a south Seattle Starbucks, he recalls telling fellow detainees about the attempted blockade when he got back to the detention center later that day. Inspired, the detainees decided to stage their own protest—aimed both at the policies that landed them in the detention center and at what they say are its dismal conditions.
Through notes surreptitiously passed in hallways, word of a hunger strike spread among the segregated pods where groups of detainees are kept. On the evening of Friday, March 7, they made their move: 750 meal trays were returned uneaten, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Moreno, and activists supporting the hunger strike, claim a remarkable 1,200 detainees—just 100 shy of the facility’s entire population—soon joined in.
Two weeks later, activists say the numbers had dwindled to just a dozen or so hunger strikers, two of whom were under medical supervision. Moreno, who spent three days without food before being released, says many detainees were intimidated into ending their protest by guards clad in black SWAT gear who went around taking names.
“There have been no punitive actions,” ICE stated in a written response to questions. Rather, the agency says it talked with hunger-strikers merely to inform them of its policies, which include seeking a court order allowing force-feeding if deemed medically necessary. That would likely provoke a court battle, as the ACLU of Washington, which is representing two hunger-strikers, says it would oppose such a move.
Meanwhile, immigration activists on the outside are keeping up the pressure. Last week they held a press conference and announced plans for an April 5 rally to call on President Obama to stop deportations, which have reached a record number during his administration. Maru Mora-Villalpando, one of the activists and the head of a group called Latino Advocacy, says a coalition came together in recent months out of frustration with Congress’ failure to act on a bipartisan immigration-reform bill that arose in the Senate last spring. “We realized Congress was playing with us,” says Mora-Villalpando, who also expressed frustration with the president. “If he’s not going to stop the deportations, we have to stop them.”
The protests both inside and outside the facility have gotten attention. Last Thursday, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith visited the detention center to meet with three detainees as well as officials from ICE and GEO, the private company that contracts with the government to run the facility.
Speaking by phone minutes after the visit, Smith says the detainees, which included the two in isolation, “made a compelling case” about the facility’s conditions. “The biggest takeaway is that there is no government regulation of detention centers. We’re going to look into the possibility of creating some standards.” On Monday, he announced that he had also discussed the matter with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
During his visit, Smith says, he heard many detainees complain about the food. “You’re always hungry,” Moreno explains. Not only are the portions small, he says, but the meals are bland, meatless, and repetitive—often rice or boiled potatoes and beans.
In a 2012 report, ICE inspectors acknowledged such complaints and said a new menu, with items including cheeseburgers and pizza, was on the way. ICE maintains the new menu is in effect.
Detainees also complain about prices at the commissary and the wage for work inside the facility: $1 a day. ICE responds that the work is not mandatory.
Overall, ICE’s 2012 inspectors reported that they “observed a better-than-satisfactory quality of life among detainees,” who have access to TV, outdoor recreation, and newspapers.
And that might be true—if “satisfactory” is measured by the standards of a prison. That, more than anything, is what the detention center resembled when I took a tour in 2006 and observed concrete floors, metal toilets, cell-like bunks, and minimal privacy.
“It is like a prison,” agrees Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He sees that as a problem. given that immigration violations are a civil, not a criminal, matter. Detainees are not there to be punished, but to ensure that they make court dates that will determine whether they can stay in this country or be deported. Many have families, jobs, and other deep ties to the community that minimize their flight risk, Barón contends.
ICE itself has recently proposed stepping up the use of alternatives to detention, including electronic bracelets and bonds. Estimates calculate such alternatives would cost less than $20 a day per person, whereas ICE pays GEO $100 a day for each detainee at the Tacoma facility, according to the 2012 report.
A major obstacle to scaling back detentions is a 2009 federal statute, pushed by immigration hawks in Congress, that sets a 34,000 “bed quota” at facilities around the country. In its contract with GEO for the Tacoma facility, ICE has committed to paying for at least 1,181 beds.
Last month, Obama directed DHS to come up with a more “humane” approach to immigration enforcement. Activists are skeptical that it will go far enough. Still, Mora-Villalpando says she believes that the pressure activists are putting on the president both locally and nationally is having an effect. “It’s working,” she says.