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Immigrants Held in Private Northwest Detention Center Report Death, Suicide Attempts Amid Crackdown

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At one of the largest for-profit immigrant detention centers in the country, human rights advocates report, there were two suicide attempts Monday, just hours apart. The privately run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, the site of multiple hunger strikes to protest inhumane conditions over the years, also reported 61-year-old Charles Leo Daniel from Trinidad and Tobago died at the facility last week. He had been detained for about four years and was in solitary confinement at NWDC when he was found unresponsive Thursday in what is suspected to be another suicide. This all comes as a federal judge blocked Washington state from fully enforcing a law intended to increase oversight at the for-profit immigrant jail, run by GEO Group. This recent string of events reveals “the importance and the urgency to shut down the detention center now,” says La Resistencia’s Maru Mora Villalpando, who explains why immigrants are vulnerable and used for votes, for political gain and as scapegoats. “We are in this midst of horrible, horrible situations in detention centers, at the border, in the countries where people need to flee, because it’s working for corporations and for governments. … That’s why we’re not waiting for the government to solve this. We have to save ourselves.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As President Biden pushes a bipartisan bill to crack down on immigrants, we end today’s show in Tacoma, Washington, where the advocacy group Resistencia is reporting there were two suicide attempts Monday, just hours apart, at the Northwest Detention Center. This comes less than a week after a 61-year-old man from Trinidad and Tobago, identified as Charles Leo Daniel, died at the ICE prison. He had been in deportation proceedings for four years and was in solitary confinement at Northwest when he was found unresponsive Thursday morning. No cause of death has been determined. But according to La Resistencia, witnesses who saw local authorities retrieve Leo’s body from the isolation unit, they described it as a possible suicide.

This is Christian Dueñas, an immigrant from El Salvador who’s been detained at Northwest for nearly two years. La Resistencia said Dueñas was also being held in isolation at the time of Leo’s death.

CHRISTIAN DUEÑAS: [translated] When the alarm went off at around 10:45 a.m., I was in the library, and I was told that someone in solitary confinement was found unresponsive. I was brought back to my cell at around 11:30 a.m., and I saw a lot of people running around everywhere. The police arrived, and the fire department. I saw that a man, who was Black, appeared as if he had hung himself.

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: [translated] Did you see him?

CHRISTIAN DUEÑAS: [translated] I saw him as he was being taken out.

AMY GOODMAN: A 2020 report by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights found ICE’s own data shows the Northwest Detention Center, quote, “detains people longer, on average, in solitary confinement than any other dedicated ICE facility in the nation.”

Meanwhile, Friday, a federal judge blocked Washington state from enforcing most of a law intended to increase oversight at the for-profit detention center run by GEO Group, one of the largest in the country.

For more, we go to Tacoma, where we’re joined by Maru Mora Villalpando, an immigrant rights activist and co-founder of the advocacy group La Resistencia.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Maru. So, tell us about this latest news, the death last week, the two suicide attempts, and the situation right now at NWDC.

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Good morning, Amy and Juan.

Yes, we are mourning right now in La Resistencia. We heard from Christian, as you heard. He called us during the day to describe what happened in the segregation unit. We immediately mobilized. We also asked local journalists to find out what’s going on. They confirmed through the Tacoma Police Department what was told to us. We are kind of private investigators, because we have to go in and try to get as much information as possible that we know ICE is not going to release. As a matter of fact, we actually sent a press release 20 minutes ahead of them with mostly very accurate information based on the little we know. And then we got another couple of calls yesterday from different units describing attempted suicides.

As all the information was being put together, we had already scheduled a vigil last night. Our members of our team and supporters were outside the detention center at 7 p.m., and they witnessed the Tacoma Police Department patrol cars leaving the detention center, and, right after, a fire department truck and an ambulance. We assume that the person that committed — attempted suicide at around 6 p.m. was the one being transported to the hospital in that ambulance.

This is a very dangerous place. We’ve said it for 10 years now. We just turned 10 last week. Exactly the day that La Resistencia was founded 10 years later, on March 7, 2024, is the day that Mr. Daniel is found dead in his segregation cell. So, this tells us the importance and the urgency to shut down the detention center now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maru, what can you tell us about why this particular detention center holds people for so long in deportation proceedings, and why the conditions there are — seem to be so especially brutal?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Well, it’s a private detention center. It’s operated and owned by GEO Group. It opened in 2004. It expanded three times, after it expanded. But once we started our fight, we were able to stop their expansion. We have been able to switch everything around on how people saw this detention center. But it’s one of the most expensive detention centers in the country. And ICE and GEO always brag about their, quote-unquote, “dental chair” in their medical service. What we have done is that we exposed the opposite of what they brag about.

But being a private detention center and being one of the most expensive ones and having a contract with a minimum guarantee of 1,100 beds daily, that means that you and I, with our taxes, will pay for at least 1,100 beds daily, regardless of the number of people that are detained. So it is in GEO’s and ICE’s benefit to get as many people as possible and as long as possible. We have seen people detained for over six years. You saw that Mr. Daniel was detained for four years, and most of that time, based on another witness that has been in segregation on and off for the past two years — he saw Mr. Daniel also in segregation for the past two years.

We have way too many instances of people being detained in segregation, either because they have mental illnesses, either because they are asking for, quote-unquote, “protection,” or, basically, because people are organizing and speaking up. That’s the case of Christian Dueñas. He was placed in segregation because he has been speaking to us. And since November of last year, when we finished the year with a hunger strike of 52 days straight, we noticed an increase of retaliation against those that speak to us while in detention. GEO guards, we can hear them in the back when we do video calls with people in detention, yelling at them that if they’re talking to La Resistencia, their tablets will be taken away. And so, this retaliation technique of sending people to segregation creates also a higher number of days of use in solitary confinement in this facility.

This facility also is the one with the lowest bond rate in the country. Only 3% of those that ask for bond are actually accepted, and then they could possibly be released. So, this detention center has shown itself as one of the most repressive ones in the country. A person that we saw yesterday, he told us he’s been in many ICE and GEO facilities. So far, this is the worst that he’s been at.

AMY GOODMAN: As we look at these conditions on the ground that you’re describing, deaths, suicide attempts, clearly, immigration is a political football in this election year. And I wanted to go to Republican Alabama Senator Katie Britt, facing backlash over telling this highly misleading story during her much-criticized response to President Biden’s State of the Union last week.

SEN. KATIE BRITT: When I took office, I took a different approach. I traveled to the Del Rio sector of Texas. That’s where I spoke to a woman who shared her story with me. She had been sex-trafficked by the cartels starting at the age of 12. She told me not just that she was raped every day, but how many times a day she was raped.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Britt was using this example to attack Biden. What the senator didn’t say is that this horrific situation described by this woman took place during the administration of President George W. Bush, that the abuse took place in Mexico, and that drug cartels were not involved. Now, the woman who Senator Britt referenced, Karla Jacinto, appeared on CNN over the weekend and said this.

KARLA JACINTO: [translated] Yes, in fact, I hardly ever cooperate with politicians, because it seems to me that they only want an image, they only want a photo. And that, to me, is not fair. … I work as a spokesperson for many victims who have no voice, and I really would like them to be empathetic, all the governors, all the senators, to be empathetic with the issue of human trafficking, because there are millions of girls and boys who disappear all the time, people who are really trafficked and abused, as she mentioned. And I think she should first take into account what really happens, before telling a story of that magnitude.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Maru, can you respond to how this is being — how this whole immigrant issue and the crisis immigrants face is being dealt with?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: We’re being used. We’re being used either to make money. We’re being used either to gain votes. We’re used as the scapegoats. We’re constantly used, because we’re one of the most vulnerable populations. We don’t vote, right? We’re not expected to vote. That’s why we will never see an immigration reform really happening ever. It’s about population control. It’s about controlling Black and Brown bodies that are being forced to migrate in the first place.

And once we get here, our stories are even stolen from us. They’re being coopted by cheap politicians that dare to mislead their base. But it works. And that’s why we see it again and again and again. All of these electoral times, it’s just a déjà vu every time for us. We know they’re going to use a story, either a very, very horrible story, like this woman’s story, or it could be someone that committed some sort of crime, when, in reality, what’s going on is these big corporations, such as GEO, such as Signature FBO, such as Global Crossing Airlines, all these companies that make money off detention and deportation, they are lobbying precisely for this kind of cheap politics to deviate from the real causes of what’s going on. What’s going on is that the same government created this crisis. We are in this midst of horrible, horrible situations in detention centers, at the border, in the countries where people need to flee, because it’s working for corporations and for governments.

And we are tired being the political pawns. And that’s why we’re not waiting for the government to solve this. We have to save ourselves. And that’s why we work directly with people in detention. They’re calling Resistencia because they trust us. They know that we will get everything out, that the people in the outside will know what’s going on inside. ICE is trying to hide everything. They purposely sent a press release about Mr. Daniel’s death, and they purposely set aside — they did not mention that he was in segregation. There’s so much to hide. There are so many things ICE and GEO and all these companies don’t want the public to know. And that’s why we exist, because, again, if it’s not up to us, we won’t be saved by the government.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maru, we just have about 30 seconds, but you mentioned the private flight companies. Could you talk about what you’ve been tracking about flights from Seattle’s Boeing Field-King County International Airport?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Since they resumed last year in May, we have been observing flights every week. In the past three weeks, we have not been successful to observe almost anything, because now this company, that is the one that allowed these flights to come back, Signature FBO, that willingly started a contract with ICE to service their flights, which their contract with the airplane company Global Crossing Airlines, they decided to switch the plane around. We are not able to see anymore. They’re blocking our view. GEO buses are blocking our view. They don’t want us to see people being handcuffed and being put in the planes, most on human rights violations —

AMY GOODMAN: Maru Mora Villalpando, we have to leave it there. We want to thank you so much for being with us, with the group La Resistencia. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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