On strike against deportation

Richard Capron reports on a hunger strike by immigrants at an ICE detention center.

The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash.The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash.

HUNDREDS OF undocumented immigrants held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., began a hunger strike and work stoppage on March 7 to protest the conditions of their incarceration. Strikers are demanding improved food quality, better medical care, better pay--they currently make $1 a day for kitchen and janitorial work at the prison--and an end to exorbitant prices in the commissary.

Since the beginning of the hunger strike, scores of family members and other allies have held daily demonstrations outside the front gate to support the detainees.

Adelina, mother of a detainee who has been held for 18 months, is disturbed by the treatment her son has received. He is deaf, and has medical needs that may not be met without the intervention of family. But as part of the facility's response to the strikers, visitations and contact with families have been suspended--and many of those outside the front gate are concerned about reports of reprisals against those inside. According to some accounts, many of the strikers have been placed in isolation.

The facility, operated by the privately owned GEO Group, is located in a vast warehouse complex at the Port of Tacoma, with a current population of 1,200 to 1,300, about 70 percent of whom are Latino. A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which holds the detainees at the facility while considering them for deportation, says that 750 prisoners are participating in the hunger strike, but the real number is closer to 1,200, according to Maru Mora Villalpando, founder of Latino Advocacy.

"It's just ironic that the government is detaining people for working without a social security number--meanwhile, they allow this company to exploit their labor," said Villalpando.

To show solidarity with the hunger strikers, activists and family members are holding daily events outside the facility. "People will be coming every day from noon to 4 p.m. until Tuesday to show their support with the 1,200 immigrants," Villalpando said. The hunger strike was reportedly scheduled to end on March 11.

Detainees report inhumane conditions at the facility, where the average time spent is six to eight months. However, those who can afford legal representation and seek to fight their deportation in order to remain with their families often face much longer incarceration. Legal representation is extremely difficult to obtain for those in detention because their undocumented status means they are not given court-appointed attorneys.

Since the beginning of the Obama administration, there have been more than 2 million deportations while Congress dithers on immigration reform legislation. As a private-prison operator, GEO stands to reap enormous profits so long as the political logjam continues to result in the incarceration of large numbers of immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings.

After facing questions about its efforts to influence immigration legislation, GEO issued a statement to reporters early last year that it would not seek to lobby Congress with respect to the immigration debate. But according to documents obtained by the Nation, GEO sought to do just that, hiring an "elite team of federal lobbyists" with close ties to Republican lawmakers who are prominent players in immigration matters.

With immigration legislation stalled, many activists want to put pressure directly on Obama to issue an executive order to end deportations. #Not1More, a national campaign organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, is sponsoring events around the country to halt the deportations and is calling for an April 5 national day of action, including more hunger strikes by detainees and sit-ins outside the White House.