By Tom James
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Hundreds of detainees at an immigration holding centre in Washington state began refusing meals in a hunger strike to protest conditions at the facility and delayed immigration hearings, activists said on Tuesday.
A group of about 100 detainees at the Northwest Detention Centre in Tacoma, Washington, refused their lunches on Monday, with 300 others joining the protest that night and the following morning, according to Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist in touch with the detainees.
The 1,575-bed facility houses immigrants awaiting hearings or deportation after being arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Hundreds of immigrants at federal detention centres across the country have gone on hunger strikes in recent years, calling for improved conditions or to be released.
The Tacoma protesters' demands include expedited legal proceedings and higher-quality food, according to a statement from Northwest Detention Centre Resistance, a volunteer group founded by Villalpando that has worked with detainees at the facility since a similar strike in 2014.
Some detainees have had legal paperwork lost when they were abruptly transferred out of state while waiting months for hearings, Villalpando said.
Seattle ICE spokeswoman Rose Richeson said the agency was aware of the situation in Tacoma but said it would not count as a hunger strike under ICE guidelines until it had lasted at least 72 hours.
"Right now it's more of a meal refusal thing that some of the detainees have done," Richeson said in a telephone interview.
Any detainees that do cross the 72-hour limit can be isolated and could eventually be ordered by a court into medical care, according to ICE guidelines.
Richeson declined to comment on demands by the protesting detainees.
The Geo Group Inc, the company that operates the Tacoma facility and other prisons and detention centres around the United States, would not comment on the situation on Tuesday, referring inquiries to ICE.
In fiscal year 2016, ICE placed more than 350,000 individuals in civil detention facilities, according to the department’s website.
In January, new President Donald Trump signed an executive order making illegal immigrants with pending criminal cases priorities for deportation whether they have been found guilty or not. The order was a departure from former President Barack Obama's policy, which prioritised deportations of those convicted of serious crimes.
(Reporting by Tom James; Editing by Patrick Enright and Jonathan Oatis)