Detention Center Hunger Strike Results In Proposed Legislation

Every so often, you can see the grinding wheels of government move.

After meeting with hunger strikers in the Tacoma Detention Center, Washington Congressman Adam Smith Thursday introduced a bill to create what advocates call the first real protections for the rights of illegal immigrants detained by the federal government. If passed, the bill would be big news for detainees not just in Tacoma, but around the country. The heart of the proposal revolves around two provisions. First, the bill would create a panel that would have the power to make rules for federal immigration detention centers, including those run by private companies. Second, it proposes mandatory, unannounced audits of privately-run facilities - facilities that immigrant advocates around the country have been calling magnets for mistreatment.

According to Smith's office, the bill hasn't been numbered yet, but is titled the Accountability in Immigrant Detention Act. As the law currently stands, "there's no accountability," said UW professor and Seattle lawyer Angelica Chazzaro, who has advocated for the hunger strikers and worked with Smith's office to put together the legislation. "Theoretically the constitution applies everywhere, to everyone equally, but in practice it has been nearly impossible for attorneys to protect the rights of detainees."

Because detainees aren't prisoners under criminal law, Chazzaro said, they fall into a grey area for how they must be treated. Instead of hard and fast rules, immigrants currently depend on what Chazzaro called "internal suggestion for how ICE thinks ICE should run." Being just suggestions, Chazzaro said, they are basically unenforceable. Filter those suggestions through private contractors operating with little oversight, and the result is minimal scrutiny of how detainees are treated, Chazzaro said.

"I'm hearing story after story from people in different states," Chazzaro said, about mistreatment of detainees similar to what has been reported in Tacoma, where the hunger strikers demanded fair phone privileges, decent food, and reliable family visits.

The bill faces a tough road at the federal level, where immigration reform has essentially been sacrificed to political gridlock while leaders in both parties have shied away from the subject. Between introduction and final passage, bills face a maze of checks-and-balances that often leave them far from their original forms - and many never even make it to a vote.

"It will certainly be caught up in those politics," said Rich Stolz, director of Seattle immigration advocacy organization OneAmerica, "but the fact is that it has been introduced." Chazaro echoed the sentiment. "Just having started the conversation is worthwhile."

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