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As Congress moves forward with immigration reform, we take a look at how this issue connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.Our region is home to a unique blend of immigrants who work in all parts of our economy — from high-tech to agriculture. This population already has a deeply-rooted history here. And its ranks are expanding rapidly.Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform address border security, employment verification, guest-worker programs and pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.

Detainees on hunger strike claim guards hit them

NW Detention Center Resistance
Detainee Jesus Chavez alleges guards at the NW Detention Center hit him and two other men in retaliation for a hunger strike.

Several detainees at the immigration jail in Tacoma say they are on hunger strike to push for better conditions. And they claim some guards are taking aggressive steps to stop them.

Two men at the Northwest Detention Center released videos this week about the hunger strike inside the facility.

In one, Jesus Chavez looks into the camera. He wears a blue uniform, indicating he’s a low security risk. His left eye appears swollen shut.

“And for this hunger strike, the guards hit us,” Chavez said in Spanish. “They hit another guy in my cell unit. They hit me. And another detainee.”

The second video from detainee Jose Mesino-Garcia tells a similar story.

“Last Thursday in our dormitory, nobody wanted to eat because the food is bad. The guards came and harassed us…and hit one of my friends, one of them tried to grab my neck. Another person was pushed out by various guards.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees the detention center, did not immediately respond to KUOW’s request for comment. GEO Group, a private contractor that handles daily operations at the facility, called the allegations baseless.

“The Tacoma ICE Processing Center has a longstanding record providing high quality, culturally responsive services in a safe, secure, and humane environment that meets the needs of the residents in the custody and care of federal immigration authorities,” GEO Group wrote in an e-mailed statement on Monday.

Immigrant advocates say up to 30 detainees have joined in the hunger strike since it started last week. They’re calling for better food and better medical care. Detainees also earn $1 a day for volunteer jobs, but they claim it’s not always paid.

“One dollar, can you imagine?” Chavez said. “It’s pure business why they have us here.”

Maru Mora Villalpando is with an activist group called NW Detention Center Resistance. She wants ICE to take the detainee complaints seriously.   

“The least they can do is fire these guards,” Villalpando said. She added that it’s become harder to stay in contact with the men on hunger strike because some are placed in solitary confinement and only allowed one phone call a day.

According to Villalpando, detainees held nine hunger strikes inside the Tacoma lockup last year. She believes the protests helped prompt a lawsuit from the Washington Attorney General’s Office, challenging GEO’s practice of paying detainees $1 a day for volunteer work. Inside the facility, detainees take shifts to help cook food, clean bathrooms and wash laundry, among other things.

Immigration officials have said they made recent changes to improve the food and respond to detainee concerns. 

Year started with KUOW: 2006