Tacoma’s federal immigration detention center was working Monday to determine how many of its 1,300 detainees were on a hunger strike, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.
The agency said 130 detainees at the Northwest Detention Center on the Tideflats declined meals as of lunchtime and indicated they were striking, compared to 330 Sunday. Supporters said about 1,200 detainees started the strike Friday in protest of deportations, and in demand of better food, treatment by guards and working conditions at the center.
Medical personnel were trying to confirm which detainees had gone without food since Friday. The agency defines a hunger strike as not eating for 72 hours or more. Detainees can buy food at the center’s commissary and keep it in personal storage areas, and the agency said it didn’t know whether strikers were refusing all food or only scheduled meals.
Immigration attorney Sandy Restrepo, who has been communicating with clients who are striking, said her understanding was that strikers were refusing all food.
“Six different pods are participating in the hunger strike, and apparently there’s about 150 people per pod,” she said. “The number 130 strikes me as very low.”
Detention center staff members were depending on protesters to declare whether they were striking, to help them decide who to put under medical observation away from the general population. Those detainees would not be officially declared on hunger strike until staff members had confirmed they had not eaten for 72 hours, the agency said.
Under the center’s protocol for hunger strikes, medical staff members can recommend involuntary treatment when “clinical assessment and available laboratory results indicate the detainee’s weakening condition threatens the life or long-term health of the detainee.”
Supporters say those striking have been drinking water.
“They’re doing all right health-wise and emotionally,” Restrepo said. “They have, however, been receiving a lot of threats from the guards inside who say that if they do continue with the hunger strike, eventually they will be referred to a medical professional to determine whether they should initiate a forced feeding through a tube. That has kind of scared a lot of the folks who were participating.”
Local Immigration and customs enforcement spokesman Anthony Muñoz did not issue a new statement Monday, but said Sunday that the agency respects everyone’s rights to express opinions.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Sunday that areas of the center housing detainees with violent criminal histories had been put on lockdown, which means privileges such as phone calls can be restricted. The agency said the lockdown was related to the strike, but declined to elaborate on what prompted it.
“They’re separating the strike leaders from each other,” Restrepo said, adding that communication between striking detainees and with people outside the center has been limited. “We’ve received word from one individual who is applying for asylum, and he was pulled aside and getting threats that if he continues striking, his asylum will be denied.”
Supporters were taking shifts outside the center to support the strikers, and said a rally was planned there for 5 p.m. Tuesday at 1623 E. J St. in Tacoma.
“It’s part of a larger movement to end deportation,” Restrepo said of the strike.