(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about the Northwest Detention Center and immigration policies as they affect Tacoma. Next week, inside the detention center itself.)
Tacoma City Council wants answers and reassurances from Geo Group America, the private operation of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility on the tideflats that is home to some 1,500 detainees who are facing possible deportation.
The council passed an emergency ordinance earlier this month that put a stall on any expansion plans at the Northwest Detention Center for the next six month, although no such plans are officially known. Mayor Marilyn Strickland pressed the point further by raising concerns about detainee treatment at the center by sending a letter to the private prison operator that included a note that said the city could suspend or revoke the facility’s business license if violations are found.
“We are writing to express concern about the current operations of the Northwest Detention Center. More specifically, we are concerned about the possible detention of individuals in violation of due process rights, the violation of the status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and other established and relied upon Federal Immigration enforcement priorities,” the letter stated. “It is the City of Tacoma’s firm position that detention of individuals in violation of state and federal due process rights bears a direct relationship to the conduct of the business for which you are licensed with the City of Tacoma, and will result in danger to the public health, safety and welfare of the individuals involve as well as the community as a whole.”
Councilmember Marty Campbell introduced the emergency ordinance at a time the center has been gaining national attention following President Donald Trump’s executive orders to step up enforcement of illegal immigrants and following the arrest of Daniel Ramirez Medina, who is a recipient of the deferred action program started under former President Barack Obama. Medina has been detained at the Tacoma facility for more than a month over allegations that he has gang ties which would violate his DACA conditions. He has denied any gang affiliation.
The anticipated uptick in ICE operations against undocumented residents coupled with the fact that the detention center only occupies five of the 17 acres of land it leases from the Port of Tacoma raised the question of future expansion plans, Campbell said.
“They own more land than what they are using,” he said.
The center opened in 2004 with 500 detainees and has since expanded to its current capacity of 1,575. It is now one of the largest facility of its kind in the nation. That fact and the empty land it leases raises the broader questions of the land-use policies of industrial land and the role private prisons should have in the city.
“Our community has not had that conversation,” Campbell said. “The purpose of our port is to move cargo in and out, so what does it say when we put a bunch of people down there?”
He noted that the council has been working on getting a tour of the facility, but have not yet been able to schedule a visit or have discussions with Geo Group or ICE officials about the operation and future of the facility.
“They hold their cards very close to their vests,” he said. “But we are certainly interested in their participation in the conversation.”
Strickland toured the detention center with state and federal officials in 2014, when the center was in the headlines when more than 1,000 detainees stages a hunger strike for 56 days over conditions in the facility that included allegations of mistreatment by guards, poor food quality and the slow pace of legal hearing schedules. She continues to have questions about detainee treatment as well as the work environment for the guards and staff at the facility, particularly as the federal government has sights on stepping up efforts against undocumented residents.
“Given the comments by the administration and a more strict stance on immigration, it is clear they want to step up enforcement,” she said.
More enforcement around the nation means more detainees, which could mean more detainees coming to Tacoma. That reality juxtaposes the city’s official stance as a “Welcoming City,” by providing legal referrals for undocumented residents and vowing to not ask a resident’s immigration status during police questioning or for other city services.
“Regardless of someone’s views on immigration, everyone agrees on due process,” she said.
The non-profit group Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest has helped detainees who are released from the center with emergency food and clothing as well as free phone calls and friendly smiles by parking an RV filled with supplies outside the center each weekday afternoon.
Kaye Marshall is one of those volunteers. She drives down from Seattle twice a month to show compassion and Christian love for the newly released detainees who are often hundreds if not thousands of miles from where they were arrested and may have received just a few hours of notice that they were being released.
“I’m sure it’s upsetting. They are scared,” she said. “We just want to be able to encourage them and be friendly to them.”
The Geo Group owns or manages 104 correctional and detention facilities around the globe with 87,000 beds, including idle beds in inventory and projects under development. The private company has 64 facilities just in the United States, with 75,152 beds under its management. The Northwest Detention Center specifically is a short-term minimum, medium and maximum security facility that houses people facing immigration charges. The average stay is 30 days. The complex encompasses 277,000 square feet and is accredited through the American Correctional Association, most recently in 2015, with a score of 100 percent in compliance with industry standards and practices.
The Geo Group responded to Strickland’s letter of concern with four-paragraph retort that mentions the center employs 360 guards and staffers, who make a wage above $12 an hour.
“The warden and GEO appreciate the opportunity for a continuing conversation to address questions as they arise,” the letter concluded. “You have an open invitation to visit the site to view operations first hand at your convenience, which can be arranged with fairly short notice.”