The last time 29-year-old Verónica Noriega saw her husband, Ramón Mendoza, was before he took off on the morning of September 4, 2013. He called her that evening, told her he’d had a couple of drinks, and asked if she could pick him up from his parked car. When she arrived she found that local sheriffs were questioning him. Mendoza was arrested for driving while intoxicated—although he and Noriega say he was not actually driving. Mendoza, who is undocumented, was eventually transferred to a privately run immigrant detention center in Tacoma, Wash. More than six months later, Mendoza is now entering the third week of a hunger strike in protest of what he’s experienced there.
Tacoma’s Northwest Detention center is owned and operated by the GEO Group under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and holds some 1,300 detainees with non-criminal immigration cases including green card holders and asylum seekers. The vast majority of detainees are men, and starting on March 7, up to 1,200 of them started a hunger strike. Shortly after the strike began, ICE confirmed that some 750 detainees were participating. That number has dropped, but it’s unclear how many detainees are still refusing to eat.
“They want better food, they want to be treated better, and they want better pay,” says Maru Mora Villalpando, who works with Latino Advocacy, a local organization that focuses on immigrant rights. The hunger strike inside the detention center followed an action outside the facility on February 24, when dozens of people blocked two vans and a truck carrying immigrants headed for deportation. “They pack people for deportation every Wednesday,” explains Villalpando. “But we stopped the deportation of 120 people that day.”
Noriega, who hasn’t been able to visit her husband because of her own immigration status, wasn’t part of the action to stop the deportation vehicles. But now, along with her three children, she regularly attends rallies outside the detention center. She heard about them from Mendoza during their frequent telephone calls. “They saw what happened on television from the inside and decided to organize their own hunger strike,” she says.
Detainees run some of the facility’s most basic functions, including cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. And even though many of the detainees are not legally authorized to work in the United States, they do, indeed, work for and receive pay from the GEO Group—$1 per day, literally pennies per hour. But an increase in wages isn’t the only demand. Detainees complain of inadequate food quality and quantity. Those inside often buy additional food from GEO’s commissary, but the costs are often prohibitive. Detainees also say the center fails to provide basic healthcare.
The hunger strikers’ demands, however, haven’t been met. And detainees say authorities haven’t dealt kindly with those who chose to join the strike. The facility was placed on lockdown and those who refused food were denied phone calls and showers. “They threatened us that if we did not eat that they were going to take our personal commissary that we bought with our own money and they were going to force feed us,” explains 26-year-old Paulino Ruíz, a permanent resident who’s lived in the U.S. since the age of three, and in the Tacoma detention center for nine months. And although it appears no detainee has been force fed, at least three say they have been placed in solitary confinement.
The conditions that detainees face at the Northwest Detention Center are not uncommon. “I think there’s a misconception that private prisons are inherently worse,” says Silky Shah, who works with Detention Watch Network. Shah explains that medical and mental health access remains a constant issue in nearly all detention facilities, which sometimes leads to suicide. Her group is currently working to draw attention to change the language in the 2015 appropriations bill that mandates filling 34,000 immigrant detention beds daily—a practice that started in 2009 without as much as public comment.
That type of mass detention, however, is also leading to detainees inside along with their friends, family members and allies on the outside, to take unprecedented steps to challenge detention and subsequent deportation. After the hunger strike spread by word of mouth in Tacoma, immigrant detainees at GEO’s Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Tex., began their own strike—part of a nationwide call to not only change how detainees are treated inside detention, but to also put a halt to deportations.
What’s happening inside immigrant detention centers now is largely the result of a series of trainings that were held in Arizona last October led by the National Day Labor Organizing Network and Arizona’s Puente Movement. Those trainings, part of the Not 1 More Deportation campaign, brought in community activists from around the U.S. to encourage people to put their bodies on the line to stop the Obama administration’s record-setting deportations.
Despite Obama’s announcement last week that he wants to identify new ways to make immigration enforcement “more humane,” it’s not clear how the executive office will change its policies. And as legislators amp up for this fall’s elections, it’s all but certain that 2014 will also not be a year for comprehensive immigration reform. Massive changes, if they happen, may well be propelled by those who are most affected by it.
Noriega, whose husband Mendoza is now in solitary confinement because of his decision to remain on hunger strike, says that his choice to support other detainees against imminent deportation was an easy one. “He’s on hunger strike because the only left for him to fight with is his own body, and his own health,” says Noriega. “All we can do is support what people inside are already doing for themselves.”