Five Washington state hunger strikers put on medical watch

Immigrants rights supporters rally outside the US Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington on March 11, 2014.

(Reuters) – Five detainees on hunger strike at an immigration holding center in Washington state were placed under medical observation on Tuesday, a federal agency said, while advocates insisted it was a divide-and-conquer tactic to undermine their protest.

Now in its fifth day, the hunger strike was called by detainees demanding an end to U.S. deportations and better conditions at the privately run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Some 27 hunger strikers were placed in medical isolation Tuesday morning, but 22 of them later ate meals and returned to the general population, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement, adding that none of those fasting have been punished.

Rocio Zamora (L) of Santa Ana, California, who says her son Alan Zamora, 27, of Bellevue, Washington has lived in the US since he was 3-years-old and was taken into custody recently, rallies with immigrants rights supporters

Of the hundreds of detainees who initially took part in the protest, five were still participating, ICE said.

Advocates backing the group, which put the number of striking inmates higher, have said detainees have faced intimidation tactics by the prison, such as open threats of forced feeding and efforts to isolate strike leaders.

Maru Mora Villalpando, founder of Seattle-based Latino Advocacy, said she had spoken by phone on Tuesday afternoon with one of the remaining strikers, Ramon Mendozo Pascual, who told her he would continue fasting until the demands had been met.

Veronica Noriega, whose husband Ramon Mendozo Pascual, is on hunger strike, rallies with immigrants rights supporters

“They are civil rights activists and whistle blowers,” Villalpando said. “They are telling the world the about the terrible conditions they’re facing and they’re risking their health and life to do it.”

The hunger strike, inspired in part by similar protests begun last month outside an ICE office in Phoenix, comes at a time of a protracted and tense national debate on immigration reform.

Under President Barack Obama, deportations from the United States have hit record highs, according to government data.

An ICE spokesman said the agency and officials from GEO Group, which runs the facility, were seeking to improve some conditions inside.

“Several issues that have been brought to management’s attention are being addressed, including adding more items to the commissary list and exploring ways to reduce prices,” said Andrew Munoz, a Seattle-based ICE spokesman in a statement.

Involuntary feeding would only occur as a last resort, Munoz said.