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caption: A fence outside of the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, is shown on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, in Tacoma.
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A fence outside of the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, is shown on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, in Tacoma.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Immigrants detained by ICE in Tacoma start another hunger strike

Update as of 5/26/2022, 10:10a.m.: The detainees in unit F4 have ended their hunger strike, according to advocacy group La Resistencia. Maru Villalpando says that Jack Lippard, ICE Assistant Officer in Charge, met with the hunger strikers Wednesday. She says Lippard told them that after reviewing their cases ICE did not think they could be released. Instead, Villalpando says, "he told them to request bond at their next court hearing. Despite the setback, the hunger strikers are not backing down; they have expressed their willingness to organize another hunger strike soon."

Original story below.

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ll 39 people detained in the F4 unit of the Northwest ICE Processing Center denied dinner on Friday to start the latest hunger strike. Another unit had ended a similar strike just hours earlier.

As of today 38 of them continue to refuse food, according to the immigrant advocacy group La Resistencia.

The immigrant detainees say they are asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which owns the facility, to review each of their cases and consider releasing them.

It's the second hunger strike in as many weeks at the facility, both over concerns over a recent rise in Covid cases there. Detainees also complain that the food is often cold and the commissary is expensive.

Maru Mora Villalpando, of La Resistencia, is in touch with the detainees and their families. She said they're asking for the most basic things, "that anybody here on the outside would assume they already have".

"That tells you why there's always hunger strikes all the time at the detention center, and now it's just getting worse with Covid," Villalpando said.

The facility has quarantined at least 16 detainees because of Covid in the last week, according records from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That's more than nearly all other ICE facilities in the nation with the exception of Karnes County Residential Center and South Texas ICE Processing Center in Texas, Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Denver, and La Palma Correctional Facility near Phoenix.

La Resistencia alleges that those in quarantine are in conditions similar to solitary confinement, and that the solitary unit at NWIPC (called unit H) is currently full.

"Imagine how horrible things are for them to deny nourishment to their own bodies and sacrifice themselves in this matter," Villalpando said. "They are trying to be as peaceful as possible, and so their only recourse is to stop eating to be heard."

The company that operates the facility, GEO Group, says it has a long-standing record of providing high-quality safe and humane care.

In a statement, the company says “GEO is assisting the federal government in coordinating the care of all detainee residents participating in the hunger strike with ICE Health Services Corps (IHSC), which is directly responsible for providing healthcare services at the Northwest ICE Processing Center." A GEO spokesperson says they have a strong reason to think the strike is instigated by politically-motivated outside groups. They also allege the detainees were still eating food from the commissary while rejecting the three daily meals serve by the facility.

A spokesperson from ICE told KUOW they are not aware of a hunger strike at the facility. ICE Public Affairs Officer David Yost also shared skepticism that the strike was legitimate. He told KUOW that the claims of a strike are by groups that do not have access to the facility, and he says he hesitates to issue anything that would encourage false information.

The detainees demand that GEO Group do more to keep Covid out of the facility. They're asking for better cleaning practices and Covid precautions.

Staff did provide larger meal portions and a unit-wide cleaning for F3, a nearby unit that held a weeklong hunger strike last week. The F3 detainees ended their protest once the offerings were made.

F4 detainees followed with their own protest because many of them allege they feel unprotected from Covid-19. They want their cases reviewed, Villalpando explained, because the unit contains people who are sick, older adults, or people who have already finished their sentences. She said ICE has kept them locked up by declaring them a threat to the community, even if their sentences are over.