On a cool autumn night eight months ago, Ramon Mendoza Pascual ambled out of a bar in a blue-collar suburb outside Tacoma, Washington, and slumped into the passenger’s seat of his car. He had had a few beers and was not about to risk it all. So Mendoza Pascual did what he thought was the right thing: He called his wife to ask for a ride, then waited around as revelers poured out of the bar and carried their banter into the street.
Mendoza Pascual was an accomplished builder who had just remodeled his family’s new home to perfection. When he was not on the job site, he volunteered his skills to Rampathon, a local charitable program that constructs wheelchair ramps for low-income disabled residents. His three children were born and raised around Tacoma and knew the United States as their only home. For his years of hard work and dedication to his community, Mendoza Pascual had a lot to show for himself. However, his status as an undocumented immigrant cast a shadow over his future.
When Mendoza Pascual’s wife, Veronica Noriega, pulled up to the bar in the family minivan, the sidewalk was eerily empty. Her husband had vanished without a trace. A half-hour later, she was informed that he had been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. Some neighbors had called the police to complain about the ruckus outside the bar, the cop swept loiterers up in arbitrary, over-aggressive fashion and now her husband was in a jail cell. And his nightmare had only begun.
As soon as she appeared at the court to pay her husband’s $1,000 bail, Noriega was told that he would not be leaving prison anytime soon. Though a judge had cleared him of driving under the influence of alcohol, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed an immigration hold on his case. That meant that Mendoza Pascual would be immediately transferred to the Northwest Detention Center, a vast immigration detention facility in Tacoma operated by a private prison firm called GEO Group.
Eight months later, Mendoza Pascual still languishes in the jail. He has not been charged with any crime, yet he has no idea when he will be released. He has been indefinitely detained for living in the United States without documentation, and deportation to Mexico is a looming possibility.
“We have no other relatives here, we’re by ourselves,” Veronica Noriega told me, “so I’m left all alone with the kids. There’s no reason for my husband to be [in Northwest Detention Center]; he wasn’t even charged. But the hardest part for me is seeing him in a situation where he hasn’t been eating for so many days.”
Mendoza Pascual’s plight is anything but unique in the Tacoma immigration jail. Having endured indefinite detention and inhumane conditions in the prison, from barely edible food to isolation and soul-crushing boredom to janitorial work for one dollar a day, he and hundreds of his cellmates recently resorted to the only means of protest available to them: refusing to eat.
Starting in early March, undocumented migrants locked in the Northwest Detention Center battled back against their jailers with empty stomachs, launching a hunger strike that spread across the prison in a peripatetic but increasingly strategic fashion. The strikes spread to the GEO Group’s Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas, another privatized vessel of cruelty, where detainees have endured reprisals including solitary confinement and being shackled to steel beds.