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Homeland Security officials open investigation into detainee's death in Tacoma

Will James
A scene from a vigil for Mergensana Amar outside St. Joseph Medical Center.

This is a breaking news story. We will update this post with new information as it develops. 

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials have opened an investigation into the death of an immigrant detainee in Tacoma last month.

The department's acting inspector general disclosed the investigation Tuesday in a letter to U.S. senators and representatives from Washington state.

Mergensana Amar, 40, attempted suicide at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma on Nov. 15 and was taken off life support days later at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.

A native of Russia, he had been denied asylum and was scheduled to be deported that month. 

U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Adam Smith asked the Department of Homeland Security to investigate Amar's death, the second death in the 14-year history of the Northwest Detention Center. 

Their request included a review of conditions at the detention center and whether detainee whistleblowers have been retaliated against. 

"We take your concerns very seriously," acting inspector general John V. Kelly wrote in his response Tuesday.

Kelly also said his office is considering an inspection of the facility.

"Because our inspections are unannounced, we do not publicize or confirm our inspection locations in advance," he wrote. "We will, however, report publicly on all inspections that we conduct after they take place."

The Northwest Detention Center, which holds up to 1,575 people at a time on Tacoma's tideflats, is run by a private company, the GEO Group, under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

A GEO Group spokesman referred questions to ICE.

An ICE spokeswoman referred to a statement the agency issued shortly after Amar's death saying "the appropriate state health and local law enforcement agencies have been notified about the death, as have the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility."

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.