A Hunger for Justice: Immigrant detainees are being punished for refusing to eat.

AuthorFeltz, Renee

Washington State was, at that time, an epicenter of the Coronavirus pandemic. After some discussion, about eighty detainees launched a short hunger strike to protest their lack of protection, including guards who neglected to wear masks. Joining with activists on the outside, they successfully called attention to the unsafe practices of GEO Group, the private prison company that runs the 1,575-bed facility for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But, despite their efforts, little changed. In early June, La Resistencia shared a video on social media of a maskless guard walking behind a detained man around the same time that two more people tested positive and an entire unit was put under quarantine. A woman in a different unit was asked if "the guards wear masks and gloves," and responded: "The majority, no."

Staff at the Tacoma ICE Processing Center so rarely masked-up that in October, when one guard decided to cover his face, detainees in his unit became suspicious. When they asked why, they learned he had tested positive for COVID-19.

"When we got the call about the guard being positive, people said they might want to do another hunger strike," La Resistencia's founder, Maru Mora-Villal-pando, tells The Progressive. But fear of retaliation changed their minds.

"They know they could be sent to the hole," says Mora-Villalpando, using a slang term for what ICE euphemistically calls the administrative, punitive, or even medical "segregation" areas of its Special Management Units. Many detainees "are afraid they're not going to be able to handle" further isolation after COVID-19 restrictions limited their recreation time, she notes. "My understanding is the entire detention center has become a hole to them."

As cases of COVID-19 have festered throughout ICE's sprawling network of 200-plus jails and detention centers, with sometimes deadly results, detainees have turned to hunger strikes to protest conditions that violate the agency's own guidelines. The abuse of solitary confinement in response has prompted legal action from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Participation in a hunger strike is a protected form of expression," says Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. "It is vitally important to support the First Amendment rights of everyone, including immigrants in detention."

Manuel Abrego tries to be as reassuring as possible. "When I get a call from somebody in segregation, I always tell them they are not alone," says Abrego, who leads La Resistencia's phone support system for people detained by ICE.

Abrego was fifteen years old in 1999 when his family fled violence in El Salvador and were granted Temporary Protected Status in the United States. After struggling to adjust, he eventually got married and had two daughters before a dispute with an acquaintance led to a conviction for assault. At the end of his prison sentence, Abrego was transferred to the Tacoma ICE Processing Center (then called the Northwest Detention Center). He was shocked at the miserable conditions, which he felt were meant to encourage people to give up on their cases.

"They want to push to get you deported, and that's it," Abrego says in an interview at his family's home in Seattle. Guards soon...

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