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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Immigration activists support apparent detainee hunger strike at detention center

A sign protests social distancing conditions at the Northwest Detention Center during a car-based protest on Wednesday in Tacoma. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Daisy Zavala

Immigration activists staged a mobile demonstration outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma this week in support of what they say is a hunger strike organized by detainees concerned about the lack of protection from COVID-19.

Detainees who talked to The Spokesman-Review said a hunger strike began inside the facility on Wednesday, in part over concerns about the lack of protections from coronavirus. Activists outside the facility observed social distancing requirements by driving past the center, sometimes raising protest signs through sunroofs or out windows.

Tanya Roman, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said there is no hunger strike and that there hasn’t been one at the center this year.

But Maria Gonzalez, who was released from the center earlier this month, said she participated in a hunger strike last month with 56 other women after they were moved from a unit built for 60 people that was holding 80.

Gonzalez said she was worried about a potential spread of the virus because she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. The beds are close together and sometimes they wouldn’t receive soap or toilet paper, she added.

“The circumstances are difficult in there,” she said. “We can’t practice social distancing even if they tell us.”

Gonzalez said officials told the hunger strikers that they were allowed to express themselves through protests, but soon after that four participants, including her, were segregated from other detainees for a few days before she was released.

Rene De La Torre, who has been detained for over nine months, said some detainees have been on strike again since Wednesday to demand their release and have been working with activist groups outside to shine a light on conditions in the center that they say are unhealthy.

“People in here are on strike. People outside can say we’re not, but we are,” said De La Torre, 47, originally from Mexico.

Most of the guards and employees inside don’t wear masks, gloves or any other kind of protective gear, De La Torre said. They don’t cover their mouth when they cough or their nose when they sneeze, she said, which is frightening to detainees because there’s no way to know if they’ve been exposed to the virus.

“They don’t take any precautions,” De La Torre said. “There are a lot of people who are at risk because they have health issues or are older.”

Officers tell detainees to practice social distancing and to wash their hands, but they don’t give out enough soap or hand sanitizer, De La Torre said. Most detainees use their hand soap to wash their clothes, she said, because they come back dirtier if they’re sent to the laundry rooms.

De La Torre and other detainees said they were worried about the high risk of contracting the virus due to what she called a lack of hygiene in the facility. They also worryabout a lack of proper medical treatment if there is a COVID-19 outbreak, she said.

ICE detention facilities are required to reinforce healthy hygiene practices and provide “unlimited access” to supplies like soap and paper towels to help slow the spread of the virus, according to COVID-19 pandemic response requirements listed on the agency’s website.

Asked for additional information, Roman did not comment on precautions taken to protect detainees.

Roman said there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the detention center in Tacoma, and tests have been administered that comply with CDC guidelines. It would be hard to give definite answer as to whether people have shown COVID-19 symptoms since they are similar to those of a cold or flu.

There have been no hunger strikes, and any claims stating otherwise are a “deceptive tactic” to exploit the plight of detainees, she said.

“This disgustingly false propaganda … does nothing more than spread disinformation,” she said in a prepared statement.

But De La Torre and other detainees said that over 300 people participated in a March hunger strike that lasted almost a month, and some were deported because of it.

Gilberto Camarillo participated in the March hunger strike and said strikers were separated and moved to different units in retaliation.

The number of detainees participating in the hunger strike in March declined quickly because there was immediate retaliation, said Maru Mora-Villalpando, organizer and activist for La Resistencia, an immigrant rights group.

People were sent to segregation, and commissary items and tablets used for video calls were confiscated, she said.

“I really can’t believe how an agency, when there’s a global pandemic and the world is at a standstill, can continue doing this kind of work,” Mora-Villalpando said.

Editor’s note: An early version of this story has been changed to add the center has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, where tests are administered based on CDC guidelines.