Prison Hunger Strike Puts Spotlight on Immigration Detention

8 minute read

Eleven days ago, Paulino Ruiz stopped eating.

After nine months at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., which houses immigration detainees awaiting deportation, Ruiz was sick of eating a boiled potato at every meal. He was offended by the harsh treatment meted out by guards. And he was tired of making just $1 per day for custodial work.

Perhaps most of all, he felt let down by the immigration policies of Barack Obama. Ruiz, 26, came to the U.S. at age three and says he is a legal resident of the U.S. But when he was released from prison last year after serving time for robbery, he was put on a path to deportation. “You can only get pushed so far,” Ruiz explains in a phone interview with TIME from inside the low-slung facility that sprawls across Tacoma’s tide flats. “More people have been deported since [Obama’s] been in office than anyone else in history.”

Ruiz chose the right time to protest. A facility-wide hunger strike started at breakfast on March 7 at the detention center, spreading by word of mouth, until by dinnertime about 750 of the facility’s 1,300 detainees were declining to eat, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The strike turned a spotlight on immigration detention and deportation policies just as the White House is taking a fresh look at the issues.

On March 13, Obama announced he had ordered a review of his Administration’s immigration-enforcement policies. The next day, the President met for nearly two hours with 17 leading immigration-reform advocates at the White House. Obama told them he has asked Jeh Johnson, the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to conduct the review.

Two of the enforcement policies Obama inherited are at the center of the Tacoma hunger strike. One is the so-called “bed mandate,” an arcane provision embedded in the annual DHS spending bill. The other is mandatory detention, which requires suspected immigration violators to be held indefinitely while a deportation review is pending, often without bond.

Introduced in 2007, the bed mandate sets a target for the number of undocumented immigrants DHS must house to receive its annual appropriation. The current quota is about 34,000 people. Immigration analysts say it forces law enforcement to pursue and detain undocumented immigrants simply to meet quotas, stripping them of discretion as they carry out their jobs. As a result, facilities like Northwest Detention Center are crammed with detainees who have committed minor infractions, such as traffic violations. Their detention costs taxpayers about $160 per day, which quickly adds up: in the 2013 fiscal year, the U.S. shelled out more than $2 billion on immigration detention.

“It’s neither good policy nor good use of resources,” says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University’s School of Law.

In recent months, House Democrats have sought to strike the statute by stressing its ballooning costs — an appeal aimed at fiscal conservatives. They argue that alternatives to lengthy detention for nonviolent offenders, such as monitoring bracelets or supervised release—would be far cheaper and equally effective. “Neither party wants to see taxpayer money wasted,” says Rep. Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat who has twice co-sponsored amendments to end the mandate. “This is something we can do on a bipartisan basis.”

But bipartisanship has flopped so far. In June, an amendment sponsored by Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida was defeated in a largely party-line vote, with just eight Republicans joining the vast majority of Democrats in a failed effort to scrap the mandate. Deutch and Foster have tried to revive the issue without luck so far.

Republicans say administration officials are allowing budget cuts to serve as an excuse for lax immigration enforcement. The GOP believes Obama has a habit of picking and choosing which parts of federal law he wants to enforce, and defends the mandate as a statute that compels the government to lock up offenders or lose its funding. “This is not optional. It’s not discretionary,” Rep. John Culberson of Texas, a Republican, told Johnson at a hearing earlier this month. “There’s no prosecutorial discretion on the part of a police officer or your detention folks as to whether or not you’re going to fill 34,000 beds. You shall fill 34,000 beds.”

But immigration reformers believe the private-prison industry is unduly affecting the public debate. Private prison operators spend millions lobbying lawmakers on immigration detention and other issues that directly impact their bottom line.

Like most detention centers, the facility in Tacoma is operated by a private contractor, the Geo Group. That corporation’s political-action committee has given more than $100,000 to state, local and federal candidates so far in the 2014 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.”It’s a wasteful taxpayer giveaway to special interests that hurts law enforcement and is inconsistent with the way we approach immigration in this country,” Deutch says.

The protesters in Tacoma were also reacting to the policy known as mandatory detention, which often locks up offenders indefinitely. The policy was expanded by a pair of laws passed in 1996 and strengthened by the Patriot Act after Sept. 11, 2001. It requires that categories of non-U.S. citizens be imprisoned without evaluating the threat they may pose, often without giving them a bond hearing. “You have people who might get arrested for something minor, but aren’t allowed to fight their case,” says Sandy Restrepo, a Washington State immigration lawyer involved with the hunger strike. “Either they have really high bonds set, or they’re ineligible for bond.”

Some of these detainees are legal residents of the U.S. Brought to the U.S. at age three from the Mexican state of Michoacan, Ruiz says he was raised in Oregon, where he graduated from high school. According to Ruiz, he spent years working construction and landscaping before he was arrested in 2008 for a drunken robbery. When he was released from prison last year, he says, he was remanded to the custody of ICE because of an immigration hold, and has been held without bond as he appeals his deportation. He says he has no ties to Mexico and his entire family lives in the U.S., including his ailing father. “I’m not a bad person,” Ruiz says. “I just made a mistake. I took responsibility for that. It hurts not to be able to be back with my family.”

It is unclear whether the review Obama ordered will result changes to either the bed quota or to the practice of mandatory detention. Earlier this month, in testimony before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, DHS Secretary Johnson told lawmakers that he interpreted the 34,000-bed mandate “to mean that we have to maintain 34,000 detention beds. Some of those beds might be empty at any given time.” That parsing, which the GOP disputes, would allow the Administration to detain fewer undocumented immigrants on a day-to-day basis even if Congress declined to change the law.

But the review ordered by Obama is unlikely to result in sweeping changes to enforcement—not least because the President does not want to hand Congressional Republicans an excuse to back further away from their halfhearted interest at rewriting U.S. immigration law. “We don’t know what the review will mean,” Chishti says. “He’s not promising anything. My own view is it will be modest.”

After more than a week, the number of detainees in Tacoma who are still skipping meals has dwindled to just a few. Andrew Munoz, a spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security’s Seattle office, said that ICE respected the right of detainees to register their opinions about their treatment. “While we continue to work with Congress to enact commonsense immigration reform, ICE remains committed to sensible, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on its priorities, including convicted criminals and those apprehended at the border while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States,” Munoz said.

Even if DHS decides to change course, it may be too late for immigrants like Ruiz. Suspended in limbo after a serious mistake, he finds himself caught in the gears of an immigration-enforcement machine that can’t often be stopped once it is engaged. “I’ve got my whole life invested in this country,” he says. “I feel like I deserve another opportunity.”

Correction appended, March 18: This story originally misspelled the surname of Florida Representative Ted Deutch.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Alex Altman at