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Pressure Growing on Immigration Detention Facilities in Wake of Death

Members of Washington's congressional delegation are calling for an investigation of the Northwest Detention Center after an asylum seeker's death. (Seattle Globalist/Flickr)
Members of Washington's congressional delegation are calling for an investigation of the Northwest Detention Center after an asylum seeker's death. (Seattle Globalist/Flickr)
December 4, 2018

TACOMA, Wash. — The death of an asylum seeker in custody at the Northwest Detention Center has ignited concerns about immigrant-detention facilities across the nation.

Russian asylum seeker Mergensana Amar died last week at a hospital in Tacoma, where he had been on life support after a suicide attempt. Amar had been in federal immigration custody since December 2017, at one point holding a two-month hunger strike over conditions at the facility. He was denied asylum status in August.

Members of Washington's congressional delegation are calling for a federal investigation into Amar’s death. Rep. Adam Smith said there are many concerns over the Tacoma facility, including the quality of food and health care, that raise flags about detention for him and his colleagues.

"Does that really make sense to detain someone who poses no threat to the community? So we have been pushing very hard for alternatives to detention,” Smith said.

The Northwest Detention Center is run by the private company GEO Group. Smith said he and his colleagues are calling for an investigation from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General.

In September, the Inspector General concluded a California immigration center run by GEO Group where a man killed himself last year posed "significant health and safety risks." Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it will launch a thorough investigation into Amar's death to ensure agency protocols were followed.

Maru Mora Villalpando is lead organizer of Northwest Detention Center Resistance, which had been in contact with Amar and held a demonstration and vigil for him at the facility over the weekend. She said the best way to honor him is to continue to shine a light on conditions in these facilities.

"We want to make sure that Amar is the last person that dies in detention,” Villalpando said. “We don't want anybody else to die - not in Tacoma, not in any other center that exists in the nation right now for immigrants. We want to make sure that this is the last death under ICE custody."

Twelve people died while in ICE custody during fiscal year 2017, the most since 2009. Smith said the number of people who have died, as well as those staging hunger strikes against poor conditions, are putting these facilities under intense scrutiny.

"There is pressure coming from the media, coming from members of Congress and coming from advocacy groups,” he said. “The question is, will the executive branch, which ultimately has authority over these detention facilities right now, respond to that pressure and take steps to improve conditions?"

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA