Rene Ruben Ramirez-Alatorre, a business owner, family man, and longtime resident of Washington state was approached by Grant County Sheriff’s officers on July 3, 2019. The officers claimed they received a complaint that Ramirez-Alatorre had a firearm. He was not arrested and according to his attorney, Eliana Horn, there was no substantiation for the interaction. Though carrying a firearm is legal in Grant County, Ramirez-Alatorre had no weapons on him. Twenty days later, Grant County Corporal Rick LaGrave returned with an Enforcement and Removal Operations officer, a Homeland Security Investigations agent, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain and arrest a law-abiding, tax paying member of his community with the intent of transferring him to a detention center where he will remain for the next 12 months and counting due to a previous immigration removal order.

Ramirez-Alatorre is currently being detained at the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) (formerly the Northwest Detention Center) in Tacoma, Washington. Horn, who is part of the immigration advocacy group Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, believes the Grant County Sheriff’s Department illegally and in violation of the Keep Washington Working Act directly collaborated with ICE and targeted her client. This is especially concerning in light of the pandemic, conditions at the detention facility, and Ramirez-Alatorre’s health. 

If there is an outbreak in the facility, Ramirez-Alatorre is at high risk. He has provided documentation from his doctor in Mexico that illustrates he has asthma, a high probability of chronic lung disease, and a recent diagnosis of prostatitis—yet the medical staff often refuse to give him care.

“Both medical staff and ICE are interested in retaliating against him raising concerns around coronavirus and advocating for himself and other detainees,” Horn explained. Horn went on to detail a conversation with Ramirez-Alatorre’s deportation officer in which the officer encouraged her to convince her client to stop his activism and indicated that the medical staff is not treating him appropriately.

“It is a torture to be in pain 24 hours a day 7 days a week,” Ramirez-Alatorre wrote in his eight-page testimony released this month.

This year, there have been at least four hunger strikes to protest conditions at the NWIPC, according to Maru Villalpando, an immigration activist who founded La Resistencia, a small grassroots volunteer organization fighting for the freedom of those detained at NWIPC under the umbrella of the national #Not1More campaign. Villalpando’s activism has resulted in retaliation from ICE officials. She has been called an “anti-ICE activist,” and claims ICE officials illegally obtained her personal information from the Washington Department of Licensing in an attempt to deport her, but she remains committed to the freedom of all those detained at NWDC. This small organization has been drawing much needed attention to the human rights violations happening every day at NWIPC, where there are four reported positive COVID-19 cases but little action to release people detained there.

These facilities are known to be a breeding ground for disease, and those detained are being held in close quarters, with little to no medical attention for any of their preexisting conditions. According to Villalpando there have been over 20 hunger strikes since 2014. Detainees have organized in groups as small as 30 to groups as large as 1200. They have lasted as little as days to as long as a few months. The incorrigible circumstances at NWIPC prompted Ramirez-Alatorre to contact Villalpando and begin to participate in hunger strikes. He fears he will be sent home to his family in a box.

Ramirez-Alatorre and other detainees in touch with La Resistencia reach out to Villalpando with information about the conditions inside NWIPC in order to inform the public. Their hope is that through sharing their stories, others will join the fight for their freedom. The first-person accounts of those detained are one of the ways in which Villalpando and La Resistencia have given detainees their voice back and are continuously raising awareness about the public health crises in these detention centers.

The detainee’s willingness to advocate for themselves and others has resulted in consistent retaliation.

“When people call us, and say, ‘We’re gonna do a hunger strike,’ the first thing we tell them is, ‘There will be retaliation,’” Villalpando explained.

There are several cases that substantiate Villalpando’s concern. A 2014 ACLU lawsuit challenged ICE actions at the NWIPC when they ordered over 20 people who participated in the hunger strikes to solitary confinement. In 2018, the ACLU filed another lawsuit against GEO Group because a detainee was beaten for his participation in a hunger strike.

In March of this year, a federal court denied a motion that would have allowed those at heightened risk of contacting COVID-19 to be released from NWIPC. The lawsuit contended that “continued detention in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic violates their Fifth Amendment right to reasonable safety while in custody.” Matt Adams, legal director for Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, issued a statement declaring, “We will continue pushing forward to challenge the detention of our vulnerable clients during this pandemic. I just hope our clients do not succumb to severe illness or death before we can procure their release.”

According to medical experts who work for the Department of Homeland Security and co-founded and co-direct the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, those in ICE detention facilities are at an imminent risk from the virus. Those who are being detained at NWIPC are being held under civil charges, but the civil removal process was never intended to jail immigrants who enter the country.

In what should have been a positive turn of events and a relief for high risk detainees and their families, a preliminary injunction was granted under Fraihat v. ICE, which requires ICE to perform custody redetermination interviews for every person in detention who may be at an increased risk due to COVID-19. Yet, Ramirez-Alatorre has been denied at every turn.

“Basically, ICE is completely ignoring documentation regarding my client,” Horn said. “It is retaliation for him raising awareness and concerns for coronavirus.”

Detaining immigrants is a multi-billion dollar private industry that is financed by American tax dollars while “employing” more undocumented workers than any other company in the U.S. For perspective, 91% of those detained are in facilities opened after 2017, according to a 2020 ACLU report identifying immigration detention under the Trump administration.

“As long as it makes money they will continue building the case for more detention. We don’t need cages. Cages don’t serve any purpose, but for those who make money off it or create power from it,” Villalpando explained.

La Resistencia and others are calling for the release of everyone in detention during this global pandemic, with the hope of the complete shut down of NWIPC, both for the safety of people detained and the people in surrounding communities. For Villalpando, the detention system and the treatment of people of color caught within it represent only the most recent system of racism, bigotry, and greed concealed under the guise of “national security.”

“When people would say, ‘Oh, it’s Trump,’ and ‘This is not my America,’ No, it is. It’s not new. This is the way the United States operates, and that’s why it’s been so successful. It has become a very powerful country on the backs of people of color. It’s legal,” Villalpando explained. “We need to change the entire system.”  

Luna Reyna is the Indigenous Affairs Reporter at Crosscut. Her work has identified, supported and promoted the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. Luna...