By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
A Filipino man with a history of mental issues will be released to his family on bond after being held for nearly nine months at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma. Migrante Seattle, a local organization advocating for immigrant rights, were among several groups lobbying for his release. Issues with the detention center highlight a greater concern of detainees held to determine whether they are to be deported.
After an arrest in Vancouver, Wash., Larry Nicolas, permanent resident of the United States for 17 years, was transferred to the NWDC without explanation.
Migrante Seattle claimed that Nicolas was transferred from Washington County’s Sheriff’s Office to the NWDC without due process. According to the group, Nicolas has schizophrenia and has been denied medication since being transferred. Medical records to verify the matter had not been produced to the judge prior to the bond hearing. The concern was that Nicolas would have been deported without this information.
“Should Larry be deported back to the Philippines, he faces heightened violence under the [President of the Philippines Rodrigo] Duterte regime’s bloody war against the poor thinly veiled as a drug war,” said Laurie Rocello Torres of Migrante Seattle. “We must remember that thousands of Filipinos are forced to leave the Philippines every day because of severe poverty, a lack of jobs, and ongoing war carried out by a president who blatantly says he will not help the Filipinos who have no choice but to migrate while encouraging violence against those left behind.”
According to the organization, Nicolas’ case was not unique. In 2018, 120 detainees went on a hunger strike to protest inhumane conditions and abuse, and requesting better food and access to medical care.
Several advocacy groups banded together to support Nicolas and his family, requesting that he receive his medication while in custody. The groups also started a fund for his legal defense. Eventually, a judge ordered an attorney for Nicolas.
At a hearing in December, the immigration judge requested that the government obtain Nicolas’ medical records to assess his condition and reconvene in January. However, those records were never produced. Organizers from Migrante Portland, Migrante Seattle, and the Portland Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (PCHRP) initiated campaigns to hold the NWDC accountable in giving Nicolas the proper medical attention while in detention over the last few months.
Per Migrante Seattle, “He was denied the basic human right to be seen by a medical professional to verify his medical diagnosis of schizophrenia.” Through community pressure, the NWDC gave Nicolas sleep medication after almost 5 months of struggling with his condition.
At a time when the current administration is taking a hard line on deporting immigrants, legal or illegal, the concern over ensuring that individuals in ICE custody are given due process and livable conditions are at a high. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an estimated 15 percent of individuals in immigration detention have a mental disability. Unlike the criminal justice system, the immigration system has no standard procedures to resolve cases against detainees with mental disabilities.
At a hearing in early April, Nicolas was allowed to be released on a $7,000 bond while awaiting his trial in Washington County.
Brian Wolf, Nicolas’ lawyer, denied a request to comment, citing attorney-client privilege despite the fact that the charging documents are of public record. A request for information from the documents that led to Nicolas’ incarceration from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office have yet to be returned as of press time.
Nicolas’ plight underscored an issue with the handling of those in custody by ICE.
According to sources who have visited the facility, there are opportunities for abuse and the lack of an ombudsman makes it difficult to advocate for the individuals.
“There are vulnerable people that are afraid to complain and while there are a lot of concerns about their treatment, they do not want advocates to do anything for fear it may impact their case,” explained an individual who advocates for detainees. There are stories of individuals being tear gassed, put in isolation, and other punitive measures.
The NWDC is a privately-run prison run by The GEO Group, Inc., a publicly traded company. It is the second-largest private prison corporation in the United States. ICE contracts with GEO to manage and run the facility. There are a set of standards that GEO is to follow, although it is not clear how they are enforced and what occurs if they are not followed. Each detainee is said to receive a comprehensive health assessment, which includes a mental health evaluation. The advocate indicated that standards are not consistently applied.
In instances when they are not followed, reporting has seen little, if any, traction on addressing situations.
Eunice Cho, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Washington stated that she has talked with individuals at the NWDC with mental health issues and is concerned with their treatment.
“We [the ACLU] have serious concerns of the medical health care at the Northwest Detention Center and the use of solitary confinement.” The ACLU has sued the NWDC and GEO as it relates to the assault of a detainee that was engaging in a peaceful hunger strike. He was accused of being the leader of the strike and thrown into solitary confinement. The lawsuit states that the detainee’s First Amendment rights to participate in a peaceful protest were violated.
According to Cho, there are supposed to be regular inspections of the detention centers by the U.S. Government Office of the Inspector General. But Cho indicates that the inspections are lax and they are given ample warnings of the inspections.
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.