COVID-19 is a huge concern at immigrant detention centers | Guest Column

Submitted by Elly Hoague, Co-lead for the Orcas Women’s Coalition Immigrant Rights Action Team.

A hunger strike is beginning at ICE’s Northwest Detention Center to protest the arrival of 9 immigrants who tested positive for COVID-19. The hunger strikers’ demands: Washington State Department of Health must have access to the Northwest Detention Center; COVID-19 tests must be done before transferring people to the Northwest Detention Center; vaccines must be provided; plan for release must be in place.

In a report filed this past weekend, Immigration Customs Enforcement confirmed that eight more asylum seekers caged at the Northwest Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19. This news comes after another person detained tested positive for COVID-19 on June 10, making this a total of nine people. Due to overcrowding and no plan for COVID safety measures in place, at least one person detained began a hunger strike on June 12, indicating that at least four more people also joined the strike.

Each of the nine people who tested positive for COVID-19 was transferred from the southern border last week. COVID-19 is still a very real threat yet ICE and GEO Group continue to fill the NWDC making social distancing impossible. By transferring more people into the NWDC, ICE and GEO are endangering the lives of people detained. In a call to La Resistencia received from someone detained at the NWDC the person stated, “They’re going to fill up every bed here. There’s no longer going to be any social distancing in our unit.”

Last week, 262 people were flown from the southern border to be detained at the NWDC in three separate flights from Texas to Yakima airport, where Yakima Immigrant Response Network witnessed every single flight. This is a sudden surge in transfers into the detention center, and the facility is now overwhelmed. Also, according to the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department director Anthony Chen, the NWDC has seen a surge of 50-100 flights at a time without a proper testing procedure before detainees are transferred. According to YIRN, next week there will be another flight into Yakima, making this ICE’s 112th flight since May 7th, 2019 when the group began witnessing deportation flights in their City.

With the passage of law HB1090, a law that prohibits private for-profit prisons and detention centers in our State, NWDC has its days numbered. ICE’s constant lack of care for people’s well-being creates an urgent need to close the facility as soon as possible. The Biden administration must stop detaining asylum seekers, end the transfers into NWDC, release people currently detained and work with our Congressional delegation to shut down the facility now. Governor Inslee must stop all Department of Corrections transfers into a facility that is placing people’s lives in danger.

Not only is this surge in transfers causing dangerous conditions inside the detention center, but it is also presenting a danger to the community outside. People who ICE transferred in came untested and unvaccinated. Some people who arrive are then testing positive while others are released into the community before testing is complete. According to information provided by TPCHD to the Tacoma CIRA, people are being released before their test results come in.

WA State Department of Health and TPCHD must have access to the facility to ensure testing is happening before transfers are done between units, vaccines are provided, and a plan for release is in place before any new person is taken into the facility. But ultimately both agencies should work with the community to address the “underlying issues”: end the transfers into the facility altogether. ICE and GEO present a danger to the people in the facility and to the community at large.

An important call to action

1. Call and Email ICE Field Director Nathalie Asher: 206-835-0650, Nathalie.R.Asher@ICE.DHS.GOV. Tell her that ICE should and must meet the hunger striker’s demands.

2. Call and Email Governor Jay Inslee: 360-902-4111, Tell him to stop sending people from the Department of Corrections to the Northwest Detention Center.