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U.S. lawmakers demand answers about immigrant detainee's death in Tacoma

Will James
Activists and mourners hold a vigil for Mergensana Amar on Nov. 25 outside St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.

Washington state's two U.S. senators and two members of its House delegation are seeking answers about the death of an immigration detainee in Tacoma last week.

Mergensana Amar, 40, a native of Russia who was slated for deportation this month, attempted suicide at the Northwest Detention Center on Nov. 15, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. He was taken off life support 10 days later at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.

The Pierce County medical examiner's office said the cause of death was lack of oxygen to the brain due to hanging. The office ruled his death a suicide.

"It is imperative that there be transparency and a thorough understanding of the circumstances and actions taken leading up to Mr. Amar’s death," Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Adam Smith said Thursday in a letter sent to acting ICE director Ronald Vitiello.

The lawmakers, all Democrats, asked the ICE director to turn over a number of documents related to Amar's detention and death by Dec. 11.

They include a timeline of when Amar was moved to different areas of the detention center and why he was moved; a timeline of medical services he received; and any reports related to his death. 

The lawmakers also posed several questions to the ICE director, including whether anyone ever questioned whether Amar was a threat to his safety; whether he was ever threatened with force feeding while he was on a hunger strike; and whether he was ever denied privileges such as access to the law library, telephone, or television.

"ICE stated that Mr. Amar 'remained in good physical health prior to this incident' – by what measures was he determined to be in good physical health?" the lawmakers asked in the letter. "Who determined that he was in good physical health? Did ICE conduct mental health checks? How often, by whom, and in what manner?"

An ICE spokeswoman did not answer a question about whether the agency intended to comply with the lawmakers' requests. "Official correspondence is answered through appropriate channels," spokeswoman Tanya Roman said in an email Thursday.

Amar crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last December and requested asylum, which was denied. He received a final order of removal from the U.S. on Nov. 5, according to ICE officials.

His name was previously reported as Amar Mergensana, based on information from activists who were in touch with him while he was detained. ICE officials said his name is actually Mergensana Amar.

Amar was held for 11 months at the Northwest Detention Center, a facility run by a private company, the GEO Group, under a contract with ICE. He began a hunger strike in August to protest the federal government's efforts to deport him, but ended the action in October, ICE officials said. 

In their letter, the lawmakers cited a recent U.S. Department of Homeland Security inspection that found bed sheets braided into nooses in detainees' cells at an ICE processing center in Adelanto, California. A September report from the department's inspector general's office also documents "untimely and inadequate" healthcare and "overly restrictive" segregation at the California facility.

"In light of this report, we are particularly alarmed by tragic news of Mr. Amar’s suicide, and are concerned with ICE practice and protocol for preventing such deaths moving forward," the lawmakers 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.