Asylum seeker at Tacoma jail goes 50 days without food

‘I would prefer to die on this soil than go back to Russia,’ says the hunger striker at the ICE facility, one of many turned down for asylum as the Trump administration gets tougher on those fleeing persecution.

Photo of detainee at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma

In this photo taken June 21, 2017, a detainee is held in a special management unit cell at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., during a media tour. The federal facility, operated under contract by The GEO Group, is used to house people detained on immigration and other violations.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Over the past two years, the United States has made it more and more difficult for foreign nationals to attain asylum.

There are geopolitical consequences for this shift in policy. And there are personal consequences for those who come anyway, claiming that they are fleeing danger in their homelands. One such individual currently sits at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma — without food now for 50 days.

He is a man in his 30s from Buryatia, a Russian republic located in Siberia, just north of Mongolia, and known for its mountain ranges and punishing winters.

He arrived in the United States to seek asylum last December. He turned himself in at San Ysidro, a border crossing that sits between Tijuana and San Diego, only to land in the Tacoma detention center a few weeks later. He is refusing to eat in protest of his detention and possible deportation. If forced to return home, he fears he would lose his life.

Sitting behind glass in a gray sweatshirt underneath a dark blue prison shirt on Sunday, the detainee looked gaunt and pale. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of persecution and retaliation from the Russian government, though his act of defiance demands attention. He has been participating in a hunger strike for what was then 47 days — one of the longest hunger strikes in the recent history of the Tacoma detention center.

If he didn’t look even worse for wear, it was because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had obtained a court order on Sept. 6 for involuntary hydration and medical treatment. ICE has pursued hydration and force-feeding orders in the past, but such orders can be under seal.

“The Court finds that there is sufficient cause to believe that without the requested medical testing and treatment” he is “in danger of irreparable injury, and possible death,” according to the court order.

The order specifies that medical staff at the detention center have permission to administer fluids intravenously and to perform certain laboratory tests that check for vital signs.   

“It is hereby further ordered that if [name redacted] continues to refuse the necessary medical treatment and monitoring, ICE and medical staff … may use soft medical restraints,” reads the order signed by U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle.  

ICE contracts with GEO Group, the second-largest private prison provider in the country, to run the Tacoma facility. The center is no stranger to controversy. In 2017, for instance, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the company for violating the state’s minimum wage law, paying detainees $1 per day or, in some instances, with snacks and extra food, for labor.

According to inmates and Grace Meng, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, GEO guards have taken liberties with the forced hydration order and even retaliated against the Buryatia native, as well as others who were recently on a hunger strike to protest conditions at the detention center.

In an email, Meng said that after visiting the detainee with a Russian interpreter, she learned he had been denied access to the law library as well as television.

When he refused laboratory tests, such as urinalysis, “heavily armored people, with helmets and shields, came and surrounded him, and told him if he doesn’t resume eating voluntarily, they will force-feed him through a tube.” Meng said they then pointed to the court order as if it provided them with the authority to do so, despite the fact that the court order does not allow for force-feeding.

Attempting to determine whether the detainee had become suicidal, Meng asked, “Do you want to die?”

“It won’t be intentional, but that’s the whole point, it’s my protest,” she recalled him saying in response. “My goal is to deteriorate, to lose more weight, to get sick.”

“I will never go back,” the detainee told Meng. “What is waiting for me is jail. They already accused me of treason. It’s punishable by firing squad. … I would prefer to die on this soil than go back to Russia.” (In 2009, Russia extended its moratorium on the death penalty. Russia has not executed a criminal since 1996.)  

Through a Russian interpreter, he explained to a Crosscut reporter that back home, Russian skinheads had beaten and threatened him. As evidence of the injuries he had sustained, he pointed to his right hand where a finger appeared to be permanently dislocated. He also said he had been imprisoned for demonstrating for the independence of Buryatia, which has been under Russian rule since the 17th century.   

The detainee said he knew he had been denied asylum, but that he had been completely bewildered by the process. On Sept. 12, he received what ICE and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security called a “warning for failure to depart” because of his lack of cooperation with officials and refusal to return home.   

“They would give me forms to fill out. They would transfer me from place to place. I don’t even know where. Court took place somewhere in Utah via video. … Everything is in English. I don’t know English … For example, instructions on how to fill out [the forms]. I didn’t even have a dictionary [at first],” he told Meng.

On Oct. 2, day 41 of the hunger strike for the Buryatia detainee, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to ICE to notify them of the concerns they had regarding the treatment of inmates participating in hunger strikes.  

“As the Trump administration seeks to increase the number of people detained and to limit the availability of release, including for asylum seekers, the desperation of people who have been detained for long periods will likely grow,” the letter reads. “It is therefore urgent that you review treatment of hunger strikers and ensure they are treated humanely and with dignity.”

Last month, Enoka Herat of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington also sent a warning letter to the Northwest Detention Center warden explaining, “Detainees in ICE custody have the right to engage in protected First Amendment speech, including participation in hunger strikes.”

According to court documents related to the recent hunger strikes at the detention center, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not solely protect the “spoken or written word,” but also protects “conduct [that] may be ‘sufficiently imbued with elements of communication to fall within the scope of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.’”

In addition, lawyers have argued that “ICE’s policy on hunger strikes does not permit NWDC to place hunger-striking detainees in solitary confinement for engaging in hunger strikes.” Yet, on Sept. 7, according to court documents, several hunger strikers were sentenced to 30 days in isolation. Detention officials explained they had put inmates in isolation because they were inciting others. The Buryatia native remains in medical isolation.   

Asked about the facility’s treatment of this hunger striker, the executive vice president of corporate relations at GEO Group, Pablo E. Paez, would only say, “We would refer you to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

Tanya Roman, a public affairs officer with ICE, appeared to initially deny the existence of the court order allowing forced hydration, saying in an email that “one detainee is voluntarily drinking a meal replacement shake in lieu of their daily scheduled meals. We are not seeking a court order as there is no present need to medically intervene.”

“ICE respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” she continued. “ICE does not threaten or retaliate in any way against hunger strikers and explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees. Additionally, for their health and safety, ICE closely monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike.”

Roman later maintained the Buryatia detainee started drinking voluntarily and that ICE never used the forced hydration order. She also said the agency "is not currently seeking and/or using an order to force any detainees to eat at the NWDC.”  

Contrary to the statement from ICE, the detainee said he would have not agreed to drink the fluids being administered if detention officials had not threatened him and presented him with a court order.

Eunice Hyunhye Cho, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said it is not uncommon for ICE and GEO Group to pass the buck to one another. She also said the case of the Buryatia inmate speaks to the overall difficulty of gaining asylum under the current administration.  

“It’s unmistakable in the current administration it’s become more difficult for anybody,” Cho said. “It’s totally possible to have a strong case and lose because you don’t have access to a good attorney.”

In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling that makes it more difficult for victims of domestic and gang violence to gain asylum. And beginning this month, immigration judges will have to meet a quota of 700 cases completed a year. Judges could also get negative performance reviews if 15 percent of their decisions are overturned on appeal.   

“It allows [a] judge to spend much less time to look at the merits of the case. It becomes an assembly line,” Cho said. “This country is actively saying it is not a welcoming country for those fleeing persecution.”

On Aug. 8, the National Association of Immigration Judges sent an official grievance to the Department of Justice over the changes.  

But even before Sessions announced the changes, the chances of gaining asylum were low. In 2017, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University, 30,179 asylum cases were decided by judges — the largest number of cases since 2005. More than half, however — 61.8 percent of applicants — were denied asylum status.

As for the Buryatia detainee’s fate, Star Wang, a second-year medical resident at Swedish, said a prisoner on a hunger strike could last for months on liquid supplements, such as Pedialyte, an oral electrolyte solution, and Ensure, a nutritional shake.

Wang cautioned there are many factors that could influence just how long someone is able to survive, including the status of their health before they entered the facility, their mental health and whether they are kept in isolation.

“If he’s just doing this on his own, then I think it’s a lot more concerning,” Wang said, while mentioning the first symptoms of starvation can include severe abdominal cramping, lightheadedness and a slow heart rate. The detainee might suffer from hair loss or muscle wasting next, not unlike those with a diagnosis of anorexia.  

When asked whether he was hopeful he would be released before his physical health deteriorated, the detainee replied, “It doesn’t matter because I’m not going to stop.”

Asked if he had anything to add, he mentioned Lake Baikal, which is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. He said he was concerned about the pollution the Russian government had allowed to fester at the lake, putting over 3,600 plant and animal species at risk.

As his hunger strike continues, the detainee is slowly attracting attention and has accepted several visitors. Junga Subedar, a community lawyer for the Whatcom Civil Rights Project in Bellingham, visited the detention facility recently hoping to determine whether she could help represent him.

“The way they’ve been operating has been pretty reckless and not even following their own policies,” Subedar said.

Like Meng, Subedar concluded that the Buryatia prisoner seemed resigned to his fate: “For him to go on a hunger strike this long," she said, "tells me he doesn’t really have a choice."

Editor's note:  A correction was made to clarify the National Association of Immigration Judges filed a formal grievance with the Department of Justice. A restricted court document was also previously described as sealed.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on race, immigration and other issues.