by Paula Cornell
(This article was originally printed by Real Change News and has been reprinted with permission.)
Advocates say that on March 1, Victor Fonseca, a detainee at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Northwest Processing Center — formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center but rebranded — reached his 100th day of a hunger strike in protest of COVID-19 policies.
Fonseca, 39, who has been in the United States for 20 years and hails from Venezuela, was picked up by ICE for a crime committed two years ago in Salt Lake City. Suffering from arthritis and on medication that lowers his immune system, Fonseca began a hunger strike in protest of the poor protection for the medically vulnerable in the face of the pandemic.
Two women — Gloria Iniguez, 41, from Mexico, and a woman who preferred to remain unnamed — began striking about six weeks ago, according to La Resistencia, an activist organization working to close the detention center.
ICE denied the presence of any hunger strikes at their facility.
Tanya Román, the regional communications director, made ICE’s statement clear using bold lettering in an email: “There are no hunger strikes, individually or collectively, occurring within the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC). Furthermore, there are no detainees requiring medical observation due to missing meals, nor have any detainees claimed to detention center staff to be on a hunger strike. Claims to the contrary are completely false”.
Román further said the “continued dishonest narrative” about hunger strikes is troubling and “causes needless fear for the family members and loved ones of those housed within the NWIPC.” The agency declined to comment more despite numerous attempts to clarify for this article.
The controversy between claims comes in part from differing definitions of what qualifies as a hunger strike. For ICE to qualify a detainee’s refusal to eat as a hunger strike, the detainee must refuse to eat for a period of at least 72 hours, according to ICE’s hunger strike protocols. If the detainee eats anything, the clock starts over. Lilly Fowler, a reporter for Crosscut who talked to Fonseca in January, said he was at that time still eating a little bit each day.
Maru Mora Villalpando, a co-founder of La Resistencia, explained how the strikers eat a little bit in order to avoid being taken into medical isolation or being force fed. Fonseca agreed to drink protein shakes in order to be taken out of medical isolation, and the women have been drinking broth from instant soup.
“There’s all these fears that they put on people because they don’t want anybody to go on a hunger strike because it’s such a powerful action,” Villalpando said.
“And so these women and Victor, they have learned to play the game with them. So they don’t take the food tray, but they will grab at least one thing from the tray so it counts as they actually took the tray. It’s a game that ICE plays to say ‘No, no one is on hunger strike.’ The last thing (the detainees) want — if conditions are already bad in the detention, it’s even worse when you’re sent to solitary confinement just by yourself.”
The conditions the detainees are protesting, according to Villalpando, include the increased use of pesticides as disinfectants and transparent disposable shower curtains. Some of the women have refused to shower because they do not want the guards to see them undressed.
Other concerns, particularly earlier on as detainees tried to protest, involved the inability to socially distance and the possibility of COVID-19 being brought in by transfers or guards.
Iniguez wrote in a letter: “I’ve had a cough since I got to this detention center. I had a fever and headache… but I did not get tested for COVID because they lie that there is no Coronavirus.”
ICE has reported 34 total cases of COVID-19 among detainees on their website.
It’s not the first hunger strike protest at the facility, nor the first over COVID-19 or over general conditions there.
“There has been wave after wave of hunger strikes at the detention center — for years,” Nina Shapiro, a reporter for The Seattle Times, said in an email.
Shapiro wrote about a strike in 2014 that lasted nearly six weeks and comprised 1,200 detainees at its peak. Fowler also wrote about Amar Mergensana’s two-month hunger strike that ended in suicide in November 2018.
Angelina Godoy, the director for the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, wrote a report detailing the conditions and other issues inherent in the detention center during the COVID-19 pandemic, including requiring the detainees to be in congregant settings, increasing their workload, being inconsistent with face masks and resisting testing. Godoy also points out that the detention center has been repeatedly subject to inspections and audits that have procured useful information but have failed to change anything.
She said in an email: “Through past FOIA litigation, the UW Center for Human Rights has received internal ICE records documenting hunger strikes that in its public communications the agency claimed never existed. Because of this pattern of willful deception, I would not consider ICE’s, or GEO’s, comments about the existence of a hunger strike at NWDC as credible.”
The Northwest Detention Center is owned and operated by a private, for-profit company called the GEO Group, which is based in Florida, and operates 58 U.S. prison and mental health facilities as well as five around the globe.
In their reports about former-President Donald Trump’s finances, The New York Times reported that he received campaign contributions from the GEO Group, entertained Group associates at his Mar-a-Lago property and perpetuated the federal government’s business with the Group during his presidency.
The Group’s status as a private company working on government contracts complicates the issue of public records because ICE as a federal agency has an obligation to transparency, but GEO as a private company does not.
Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, described this conflict in a lawsuit that began in summer 2020 to release those who are medically vulnerable.
“In the lawsuit that we have, GEO has been saying ‘we’re not subject to this lawsuit because we’re just a private company, you can’t sue us, you can only sue the government.’ And then the government says, ‘Well we don’t control the conditions inside the detention center, that’s all GEO.’ So there’s sort of this finger pointing.”
One solution to this conflict is the current HB 1090 bill, which would prevent private detention centers or prisons in Washington state — NWDC is the only one — from renewing their license. NWDC’s license is set to expire in 2025.
The bill details the high number of safety concerns among private, for-profit institutions, compared with federal institutions, as well as lower accountability for the private facilities.
HB 1090 passed the House 76-21 and went before the Senate Feb. 23 and, at the time of publication, is progressing through the Senate.
The facility, which is one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the country and was designed to hold up to 1,575 detainees, is currently holding only about 200, according to Villalpando.
For now, Fonseca, Iniguez and the other unnamed striker will continue to wait for the possibility of being released and remain firm in protesting the conditions. At last word, relayed to La Resistencia March 17, the three detainees maintained their hunger strikes.
As of March 23, Iniguez had stopped eating solid foods and was put in solitary confinement because of that.
Fonseca said in a statement released by La Resistencia: “I am not stopping. I will keep fighting for my freedom, my family and my life.”
Paula Cornell is a Washington-based reporter.
Featured image: A heart of plastic cups was installed in the fence outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma on Thursday. (Photo by Paula Cornell).
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