Immigrant detainees who started a hunger strike last Friday at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., are reporting increased retaliation by guards — including threats of force-feeding — according to a lawyer backing the group.
As the hunger strike entered its sixth day Wednesday, attorney Sandy Restrepo told Al Jazeera that the detainees have vowed to continue their strike in the face of threats until adequate negotiations take place between strikers and the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
ICE denied that it was retaliating against the strikers.
The detainees are demanding safer working conditions, better treatment by guards, more sanitary food options, and for President Barack Obama to sign an executive order halting deportations until the U.S. immigration system is overhauled.
As of Tuesday evening, five strikers had been placed under medical observation. ICE said that one of the detainees had broken the fast Wednesday morning and was allowed to “return to the general population.”
Maru Mora Villalpando, an immigration reform advocate and founder of Latino Advocacy, told Al Jazeera that her group is in contact with elected officials to push for “a monitored negotiation process to prevent further abuse by detention center officials.”
Restrepo, who met with some of the hunger strikers on Tuesday, described guards as armed and dressed in riot gear. “Immigrants on hunger strike are being placed in solitary confinement, coerced into signing deportation forms, and threatened with forced-feeding if they continue their protest. Asylum seekers are being threatened with denial of their cases,” Restrepo said.
ICE rejected the allegations of retaliation. “There have been no punitive actions taken against individuals who are participating in the protest,” ICE officials said in an emailed statement. “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to express their opinion without interference.”
Although ICE did acknowledge that strikers were advised that they may be force-fed, it said that it was looking out for the strikers' well-being.
“Detainees are being advised of the health consequences of remaining on a hunger strike," the ICE statement said. "This includes the fact that going without food for a prolonged period of time could put their life in danger, and if that point is reached ICE may be forced to obtain a court order to force feed an individual."
Villalpando, who has communicated with some of the strikers, said that guards were also threatening strikers with deportation, and in some cases forcing them to sign consent forms authorizing immediate deportation.
In one case, she said that a detainee was dragged into a room before guards and told to end his strike or sign a form authorizing deportation. “When he refused to do either, one of the guards pulled his arm and forced his fingerprint," Villalpando said.
Strike leaders in particular, she said, are being targeted and placed in solitary confinement. "They are being told that they cannot rejoin the general population unless they end their hunger strike," she said.
While ICE confirmed reports that some strikers were separated from the general population, it said that the basis for its decision to do so was "medical observation.”
The Washington state detainees are the latest to join a nationwide campaign to protest deportations, with similar actions recently taking place in Arizona, Illinois, California and Virginia. The coordinated protests represent a new strategy in the battle to halt deportations after a bipartisan immigration reform bill stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Immigration activists have shifted their focus from Congress to Obama, demanding that he issue an executive order to end deportations until the immigration system is overhauled for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
Under Obama, U.S. deportations have hit record highs, immigration advocates point out.
"For us, this president has been the deporter-in-chief," said Janet Murguia, a former Obama ally and president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the United States. "Any day now, this administration will reach the 2 million mark for deportations. It is a staggering number that far outstrips any of his predecessors and leaves behind it a wake of devastation for families across America."
On Tuesday, family members of the Washington hunger-strikers attended solidarity rallies organized outside of the detention facility. Veronica Noriega, the wife of one of the hunger strike leaders, told Al Jazeera that her husband was placed in solitary confinement with three other strikers for his role in organizing the protest.
Noriega attended Tuesday's rally with her three children, ages 5, 11, and 13. She is currently working three jobs to make ends meet following her husband’s detainment in September 2013, she said.
Restrepo said the government's inability to pass immigration reform is taking its worst toll on families. "These are fathers and mothers in there, people who will one day be eligible to stay under any new immigration law. There's no reason why they shouldn't be allowed to return to their families, to challenge their case from the outside," she told Al Jazeera.