Unknown chemical agent used in Tacoma ICE facility

Natalie Comerford, News Reporter

Following reports of a hunger strike that started on Feb. 1, guards used unknown chemical agents against detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility that is privately run by the GEO group in Tacoma. When detainees closed the door to their unit, facility staff used chemical agents in an enclosed space against people in the unit. Other units were able to see the gassing unfold. 

Maru Mora Villalpando is a Community Organizer for La Resistencia, an organization that works directly with those detained at the Tacoma facility. She described what detainees experienced at the facility.

“ICE directed GEO to bring their SWAT team. This means that they changed uniforms, are dressed in all black and have riot gear. They stormed the unit, by not only being dressed in this kind of wear, but also helmets, shields and long weapons,” Mora Villalpando said. “It really scared people. Some were able to leave before the gassing started, and then GEO launched three different canisters.”

Directing Attorney for the Tacoma office of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Tim Warden-Hertz believes the use of chemical agents inside is unprecedented and troubling. 

“I have not heard of [using chemical agents] before, certainly not at the detention center in Tacoma. It certainly feels like a very big deal as chemical agents like that are documented to be unsafe. We’re very troubled by the use of chemicals anywhere, but particularly in an indoor setting in any type of detention facility,” Warden-Hertz said. 

ICE and GEO deny that a hunger strike ever occurred in the detention center. Mora Villalpando and Warden-Hertz, who both work directly with those detained at the facility, have confirmed the hunger strike.

Abby Scholar is the Executive Director of Central Washington Justice for our Neighbors, an organization that provides free immigration assistance in Central and Eastern Washington. 

“It’s ridiculous,” Scholar said. “We even have the dates. It was Feb. 1 when over 85 people went on hunger strike. Feb. 3, only two days later, 37 more people joined. We’re looking at over 100 people on hunger strike, which is almost 17 percent of the people who are there right now.” 

There is no confirmation about what exact chemical agent was used, but any riot control agent in an enclosed space, such as the housing unit, can be very dangerous. Mora Villalpando describes the severity of the gassing, which was so intense that it collected on surfaces.

Unit F3 reported that the GEO guards tried to cover up the windows to the unit; they were also blocking the cameras. They were able to see that the windows were tinted yellow from the gas,” Mora Villalpando said.

According to reports from people within the unit, a detainee attempted suicide after the incident. Both ICE and GEO deny this claim. 

ICE and GEO state that the safety and humane treatment of the detainees in the facility is their number one priority and they are remaining in compliance with federal food and safety standards. 

From talking to those inside the facility, Mora Villalpando heard about the lack of medical treatment and punishment of those involved in the protest. 

“They were moved one-by-one, which means people stayed there longer than they needed to be there. The unit was dismantled, and [protesters] sitting at the table were sent to solitary confinement,” Mora Villalpando said. “They were not given medical treatment, [and] they were not given new uniforms, even though theirs were completely wet with chemicals that hurt and burned their skin.”

Contracts between private organizations like GEO and the government may complicate questions of responsibility.  The detainment facility is run by the GEO group, but it is funded, populated and controlled by ICE. Warden-Hertz elaborated on the complicated nature of the responsibility of such incidents. 

“Hearing their initial responses, it highlights one of the many issues with private detention and handing off some of that responsibility to a private company. In the initial response, GEO said, ‘We can’t talk to you, you [have to] talk to ICE,’ and ICE says, ‘We’re not responsible, you [have to] talk to GEO.’ That handoff of responsibility is incredibly troubling — to some extent, both are responsible,” Warden-Hertz said. 

Tensions have long existed at the privately run detention center in Tacoma. The use of chemical agents in this facility was something activists had not heard of before and found very troubling. Contention remains around the reliability of information.