By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Wa. (Reuters) - Hundreds of detainees at an immigration holding center in Tacoma have gone on hunger strike to demand better conditions at the facility and an end to U.S. deportations, their attorney said on Saturday.
While advocates for the strikers put their numbers at 1,200, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement that, on Friday evening, meals had been refused by 750 of a total 1,300 inmates at the Northwest Detention Center, operated by the GEO Group.
The hunger strike, in its second day on Saturday, will continue for at least five days and is likely to go longer, said Seattle-area attorney Sandy Restrepo, who represents several of the strikers and, in recent years, has represented hundreds of detainees at the privately run facility.
"People in detention can't wait any longer," Restrepo said. "They are human beings, not criminals, and they deserve better treatment."
Under President Barack Obama, deportations from the United States have hit record highs, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security data.
In addition to protesting U.S. deportation policy, the strikers' demands include better food, increased pay for their work inside the facility and better over-all treatment by the guards, Restrepo said.
Along with the hunger strike, many detainees have also begun a work stoppage, she said.
The official average stay for detainees is four months, but most wind up staying longer, including a client whose release Restrepo secured after nearly two years in the facility, she said, adding that most of the detainees are from Mexico.
"ICE fully respects the rights of all people to express their opinion without interference," said Seattle-based ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz.
Once detainees have refused food for 72 hours, they will be considered to be on hunger strike and be medically monitored, ICE said in a statement.
Officials for GEO Group did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Supporters of the strikers plan to protest outside the facility every afternoon until Tuesday, said Maru Mora Villalpando, founder of the Seattle-based Latino Advocacy, an immigrants rights group.
Her group helped to organize protests outside the facility last month that blocked a bus and two vans with immigrants about to be deported from leaving the facility, she said.
The strikers are inspired in part by a days-long hunger strike begun last month outside an ICE office in Phoenix, Villalpando said, in which local media reported that family members of detainees demanded their release and an end to deportations.
Last year in California, prisoners went on a two-month hunger strike to protest the policy of keeping some inmates in near-isolation for years. They ended the strike in September, after state lawmakers agreed to hold hearings on the practice.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Gunna Dickson)