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Immigrant detainee dies in Tacoma hospital days after medical emergency

A makeshift memorial formed outside St. Joseph Medical Center at a vigil in honor of an immigrant detainee who died there Saturday night.
Will James
A makeshift memorial formed outside St. Joseph Medical Center at a vigil in honor of an immigrant detainee who died there Saturday night.

This is a breaking news story. We'll update this post with new information as it becomes available.

An asylum seeker held in Tacoma died Saturday evening of injuries he suffered during a suicide attempt before his scheduled deportation, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman said.

Amar Mergensana, 40, was taken off life support after several days in the intensive care unit of St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma. He was found unresponsive at the Northwest Detention Center on Nov. 15. 

Mergensana, a native of Russia, received a final order of removal on Nov. 5 and was scheduled to be deported this month, ICE spokeswoman Tanya Roman said Monday. 

The preliminary cause of death is "anoxic brain injury due to asphyxiation," Roman said.

Mergensana's brain activity ceased on Nov. 18, and ICE officials were in touch with his next of kin with help from the Russian Embassy, Roman added.

The Pierce County medical examiner's office concluded Mergensana died of lack of oxygen to his brain due to hanging, an investigator with the office, Jeff Polanco, said. The medical examiner's office, which performed its examination Monday, ruled the death a suicide, Polanco said. 

ICE officials have notified local law enforcement, state health officials, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, and ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility, Roman said.

Mergensana had gained attention for a two-month hunger strike he began this summer to protest the federal government's efforts to deport him.

He was consuming enough calories to be taken off hunger strike status last month, but was checked on daily by ICE medical personnel, Roman said. He was in "good physical health" before he was found unconscious, she added.

Mergensana is the second detainee to die in the 14-year history of the Northwest Detention Center, one of the largest holding spaces in the U.S. for people facing deportation.

The facility on Tacoma's tideflats holds up to 1,575 people at a time as they go through immigration proceedings. It is run by a private company, the GEO Group, under a contract with ICE.

Jesus Cervantes-Corona, 42, died there in 2006 of coronary artery disease, according to ICE records.

Activists critical of ICE called on Washington state officials to launch an investigation into Mergensana's death.

"Mr. Mergansana’s horrifying death is proof that ICE and GEO Group will not keep people safe," said Maru Mora Villalpando, a leader of the group Northwest Detention Center Resistance.

GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez referred questions to ICE officials.

Activists and mourners lit candles and held signs during a vigil Sunday evening outside St. Joseph Medical Center. 

"This is a very sad statement of how we treat people who have done nothing wrong, except maybe cross the line," said Norma Ramirez, a retired teacher who attended the vigil, referring to the border. "But they should not have to pay for that by being separated from their families or dying." 

Mergensana was detained by ICE after seeking admission at a U.S. port of entry without the proper documentation, Roman said.

He arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last December and was later denied asylum, said activists with Northwest Detention Center Resistance. They said he began refusing meals Aug. 23.

Though he continued refusing meals, he began consuming fruit, electrolytes, and meal replacement shakes on Sept. 19, and was getting enough calories to be taken off hunger strike status on Oct. 16, according to Roman.

Tacoma police responded to a 911 call reporting a suicide attempt at the Northwest Detention Center on Nov. 15, according to police spokeswoman Loretta Cool.

ICE medical staff tried to resuscitate Mergensana before he was rushed to the hospital, Roman said.

Staff at CHI Franciscan Health, which operates St. Joseph Medical Center, are in touch with Mergensana's family, according to a statement from CHI Franciscan vice president Cary Evans.

"We are working with his family as they grieve during this difficult time," Evans said.


Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.