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Behind The Hunger Strike At Tacoma’s Immigration Lockup

A steady protest has hung over an immigration lockup in Tacoma for more than a month.

In March, hundreds of detainees went on hunger strike. Outside the gates, families and supporters have gathered daily, waving signs that read “No More Deportations.”

A large crowd is expected outside the facility again this Saturday, as part of a national campaign. The protest has grown out of frustration about an impasse on immigration reform as detainees fight to avoid deportation and separation from their families.

‘I Wouldn’t Be Another Number’

Just a mile north of the Tacoma Dome, you find one of the country’s largest immigration detention facilities. The Northwest Detention Center currently holds about 1,300 people facing immigration charges. Most entered the U.S. illegally and will likely be deported.

Past the security, soft-spoken Ramon Mendoza-Pascual sits in a small interview room. His dark blue uniform, issued for lowest security inmates, drapes over his thin frame.

Mendoza-Pascual, who spent the last seven months at the facility, said the toughest part is being away from his kids.

“I’ve had days where I just wanted to give up. I couldn’t take anymore. But my wife gave me strength to keep going,” Mendoza-Pascual said.

Detainees held for this long often give up fighting their case and just sign the deportation papers.

But Mendoza-Pascual had always said, if he ended up in detention, he’d take a stand.

“I always talked with my wife,” Mendoza-Pascual said. “I told her, I wouldn’t be another number. If I ever ended up here, I’d do something. This has to stop already.”

What he wants to stop is the escalating number of deportations and the growing number of families who are split apart.

Detention Conditions Draw Scrutiny

In March, Mendoza-Pascual secretly helped organize a hunger strike there by passing a letter from cell block to cell block. Hundreds of detainees refused to eat several meals. Mendoza-Pascual was one of the last holdouts – going 15 days without food. As a result, he shed 15 pounds.

The protesters also called for better conditions at the center, like better food and treatment by the guards.

This center is run by a private, for-profit company with federal oversight from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE officials have met with attorneys who represent the detainees’ demands, but it’s unclear if negotiations will continue or lead to any changes.

The hunger strike prompted a visit from U.S. Congressman Adam Smith, who said he’ll push for new standards for detention.

Similar protests have also sprung up elsewhere, as the detention centers themselves become symbols of this deportation issue.

“Well, unfortunately we need to have immigration detention centers because immigration enforcement just doesn’t work on an honor system,” said Jessica Vaughan, who is the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.

Vaughan agreed with ICE’s practice to detain individuals who may pose a threat to the community.

“[ICE’s] caseload consists primarily of illegal immigrants who have committed other crimes and often are a risk to release back in the community because they might reoffend and again harm people or they might simply disappear back into the community,” Vaughan said.

She said she’d like to see wider use of detention as a way to ensure those who are ordered to leave the country, really do — even if that means families and U.S.-born kids are left behind.

"If nothing happens to them, then there’s no reason for them to stop trying to come here illegally," Vaughan said.

Family Struggles With A Parent In Detention

Mendoza-Pascual and his wife, Veronica Noriega, own a small mobile home in Auburn. Mendoza-Pascual works as a carpenter and Noriega is a housekeeper at a hotel. They have three children – ages 13, 11 and 5. Only the youngest, Ashley, was born here and is a U.S. citizen.

As we drove to Ashley’s school during our interview, Noriega said her kids desperately want their dad home.

“My older daughter, the 11-year-old, she’s taken it the hardest,” Noriega said. “She cries all the time.”

On the way home, Noriega dropped off a neighbor’s son while Ashley and I waited in the car.

I asked Ashley if she prefers to speak English or Spanish.

Spanish, she said. Then, unprompted, she launched into a story about the night her dad was arrested.

“It’s that, when my papa was over there, he was waiting for my mama, but they got him,” Ashley recounted.

County sheriffs picked up Mendoza-Pascual for driving under the influence. Records confirm they found him in a parked truck. Mendoza-Pascual said he was waiting for his wife to get him, but the sheriffs arrived first. His case is still pending.

Mendoza-Pascual was convicted of a DUI in 2007.

Back at their home, Noriega showed off her husband’s handiwork. He built out the home’s whole interior – ceiling to floor.

Above the wood stove, candles glow in front of a Bible. It’s a vigil for Mendoza-Pascual's return.

Noriega said she keeps the main light off to save on her utility bill. “We’ve had to ask for food stamps for the first time and go to a food bank,” she said.

Even after Noriega picked up extra shifts at work, money is still tight. They’ve burned through savings and sold what they could – including her husband’s truck and tools.

There’s Nothing Left To Lose

The kids often visit their dad on Saturdays. Noriega usually has to work. Since I would see Mendoza-Pascual the day after this visit, the family decided to send a video message.

Young Ashley told all about her visit to the dentist. Then her sister, Veronica, struggled to talk as tears streamed down her face.

“I miss you a lot,” she said. “I hope you come back soon.”

At the detention center, the video hit Mendoza-Pascual hard.

A minute passed before he could even speak. He noticed his son’s voice has grown deeper. He hasn’t hugged his kids in months. Every visit, they’re behind a window.

Even if he’s deported, he said, he thinks this protest will be worth it. Or at least, he said, there’s nothing left to lose.

As some detainees still refuse to eat, Mendoza-Pascual’s attorney said her client has been sentenced to 20 days of solitary confinement on charges that he incited a group demonstration. On Thursday, two legal groups filed a lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying it is retaliating against hunger strikers at the Tacoma detention center by placing them in solitary confinement.

The agency denied that charge. ICE officials said they separated some detainees from the general population because they were pressuring others into supporting the strike.

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