A month-long hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center on the Tacoma Tideflats that reportedly involved more than two-dozen immigration detainees seems all but over following claims of retaliation fears and a recent court case that would allow officials to force feed the protesters if medically needed.
U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle ruled against a suit filed by the detainees involved in the hunger strike to contest detention officials force feed them if it were determined their health was at risk. The ruling came based only on court filings after a hearing on the matter was canceled. The detainees had wanted to preemptively block the force-feeding on First Amendment grounds and any retaliation for participating in the strike.
“Those threats have been imposed in the past and may come very soon in the future,” said Edward Alexander, an attorney for one of the striking detainees.
Immigration and Custom attorneys argued that they hadn’t sought an order allowing them to force feed detainees but didn’t want to lose the option to do so in the future if the hunger strike continued much longer. Detainees have long complained with periodic hunger strikes over living, working and medical conditions in the center as well as part of the national debate over the separation of children from their families during immigration reviews and detentions, activist Maru Mora Villalpando said at a Sept. 18 press conference outside the federal courthouse that was streamed on social media through the NWDC Resistance.
One detainee reportedly hadn’t eaten for a month, while others joined later, totaling some 30 inmates at its peak, which has since dropped to just a handful, supporters stated in a release.
Immigration centers around the nation have faced protests over the Trump administration’s “no tolerance” stance on undocumented immigration. The 1,575-bed detention center in Tacoma, which is operated by the for-profit company GEO Group, has been among them. It faces a lawsuit from State Attorney General Bob Ferguson over its practice of following federal guidelines of paying detainees only $1 a day rather than the state’s minimum wage. The company and the city are also in a legal battle over changes in the zoning governing the site that would make any expansions more cumbersome. The Growth Management Hearings Board sided with the city in its decision on the case, a key win as the issue goes to trial. The board decided that the state’s definition of “essential public facilities,” ones that are exempt from local zoning rules, doesn’t mention federal detention centers. It only state prisons and local jails.
“The city’s actions in opposition to federal immigration policies, which have existed under both Democratic and Republican administrations, are disrupting GEO’s ability to operate a legally permissible special purpose facility,” GEO has stated in regard to its lawsuit against the city. “Our legal action against the city was necessary to stop the city’s clear intention to restrict and hamper the federal government’s ability to carry out core federal functions related to immigration. It is important to understand that banning a privately-operated immigration center in Tacoma will not stop or change federal immigration policies.”
The recent ruling in the hunger strike case came just days after a scrap metal fire burned near the detention center that sent the stench of burning plastic into the air that could be smelled miles away and prompted the Tacoma Fire Department to issue an alert for people to avoid inhaling the fumes as much as possible. The fire was later determined to have involved lithium batteries. The state Department of Ecology listed the air quality in the area as moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups throughout the day but otherwise determined that the air was safe.
Critics of the detention center also claim that detainees have reported to them that an outbreak of chickenpox, the second of the year, has hit at least six pods within the facility. The center had an outbreak of chickenpox this summer as well that prompted U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer from being turned away from a scheduled meeting with detainees.
“Yesterday, several people detained reported that everyone that went to the medical unit in the morning for non-varicella (chickenpox) related illnesses were placed by mistake in a waiting room with people that have been exposed to the virus,” the NWDC Resistance reported on Sept. 21.
In response to media inquiries about the hunger strike at the facility, the claims of another chickenpox outbreak and the worries about detainees potentially being exposed to toxins from the nearby fire, GEO Group’s Vice President of Corporate Relations Pablo E. Paez referred all questions to ICE.
“Operational decisions are made by ICE; additionally, medical care at the facility is provided directly by ICE (not GEO),” he wrote.