By Bryan Cohen
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Dozens of detainees at an immigration holding center in Washington state have begun refusing meals, renewing a hunger strike launched by hundreds of inmates earlier this month, attorneys and activists supporting the group said on Tuesday.
The protesters have been demanding improved conditions for the 1,300 inmates held at the privately run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma and an end to routine U.S. deportations of immigrants who have entered the United States illegally.
Participation in the original hunger strike dwindled as the fasting wore on, with several holdouts segregated from the general population and placed under medical observation in a move protesters said was a tactic facility managers aimed at weakening their resolve.
But Angelica Chazaro, an immigration attorney and University of Washington law professor who represents several of the inmates, said about 70 detainees began refusing food again on Monday after managers failed to improve conditions as promised.
Andrew Munoz, a Seattle-based spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said he was unaware of a renewed round of hunger strikes inside the detention center.
As of Tuesday, only one detainee from the earlier protest was still under medical observation, in accordance with an ICE policy requiring such treatment of inmates who refuse to eat for 72 hours, Munoz said.
Chazaro identified the one detainee as Jesus Gaspar Navarro, a hunger strike leader who she said had been fasting since March 6, when the first protest began. It was unclear how many inmates from the original protest were still refusing food prior to Monday, Chazaro said.
During the first round of hunger strikes, officials warned they may resort to forced feeding of participants if their lives were deemed at risk. Munoz said ICE has not performed any involuntary feeding inside the Tacoma facility, which would require a court order.
The hunger strike in Washington state was inspired in part by similar actions in Arizona and a February protest outside the Tacoma facility, which is operated for the federal government by the GEO Group.
Facility managers said about 750 Tacoma inmates started off refusing meals earlier this month, while attorneys for the group said the number was closer to 1,200.
Monday's hunger strike began the same day that advocates say a suicide was attempted inside the Tacoma lockup, though Chazaro said that incident did not precipitate the latest protest.
An ICE official confirmed that a detainee was taken to the hospital on Monday following a medical emergency but declined to elaborate except to say the cause was under review.
Jessica Ramirez, an activist for the Not One More Deportation campaign, said advocates had recently met with ICE officials to push for better food, safer working conditions, and an increase to $1-per-day pay for jobs inside the facility.
Inmates in another GEO Group-operated facility in Texas recently began refusing meals to protest conditions there and mass deportations by the U.S. government.
Under President Barack Obama, deportations from the United States have hit record highs, according to government data.
(Reporting by Bryan Cohen; Editing by Steve Gorman and Ken Wills)