Detainee Hunger Strike in Tacoma Sparks Federal Bill

By Liz Jones

A hunger strike at an immigration detention center in Tacoma recently ended, after nearly two months. But the ripple effects continue. Congressman Adam Smith, plans to introduce a related bill today . It aims to change how the feds operate – and review – detention facilities.

Imagine a restaurant review, written by the restaurant’s owner. Would you trust it? U.S. Representative Adam Smith is raising a similar question about immigration detention centers. These facilities are overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Smith: “Right now the facilities are audited by the same people – ICE – who put out the regulations. And unsurprisingly ICE thinks ICE is doing an amazing job.”

Smith recently heard less glowing reviews from the detainees on hunger strike. They complained about bad food, low pay for center jobs and harsh treatment by some guards. Smith’s bill would change who sets the standards for how these facilities operate. Standards for everything from dietary guidelines to discipline.

ICE declined to comment on proposed legislation. But on its website, the agency says it creates standards with input from various stakeholders.

Smith: "Input is not same as legally binding."

Smith’s legislation follows the model of federal prisons. Detention standards would be established by federal law, not by ICE alone. Smith believes that would lead to better regulations, and more reliable, independent audits. Although, he admits the bill’s a longshot.

Hundreds of detainees in Tacoma took part in the hunger strike. Supporters called it a victory, as it gained national attention and sparked protests elsewhere.

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