City Club of Tacoma Hosts Panel Discussion of the Northwest Detention Center

Richard Smaby

The issue of deportation has received a lot of press lately, as immigrant detainees have launched hunger strikes and demonstrations to demand improved conditions in detention centers across the U.S. This issue is very close to home, as the largest detention facility in the West Coast resides right here in the Port of Tacoma. On May 21 the City Club of Tacoma hosted a panel discussion on the Northwest Detention Center covering the history of immigration detention, legal issues and its operation by a private for-profit company, the GEO Group.

The following panelists led the discussion.

  • Robin Jacobson, Political Science professor and Chair of Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest.
  • Sara Sluszka, Attorney, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Tacoma Office
  • Trent England, Attorney, Executive VP, Freedom Foundation.

Robin Jacobson

Immigration detention has been in the news a lot as a result of civil disobedience by some community organizations that led to hunger strikes lasting over 50 days and more community involvement and protests. The Northwest Detention Center on the tide flats has become a site of tension in the larger community.

It is important to clarify up front that we are talking about civil detention not criminal detention. People inside the Center are not there because they have committed a crime. If a person who is detained has committed a crime, they have already served the sentence before coming to the detention center. Detention is not a punishment; it is about enforcing immigration policy.

The history of immigration regulation shows infrequent change. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the late 19th century. National origin quotas were instituted in 1924 in which eligibility for immigrating was based on a person’s country of origin. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the national origins formula and used personal characteristics: job skills, family connections and various preference categories. It led to an emphasis on enforcement and detention during the 1980s largely influenced by immigration from Cuba, Haiti and Central America. Detention became a primary means of enforcement of immigration policy in the 1990s and grew steadily.

The first spike in the number of people detained occurred in 1996, when the government implemented new laws that included mandatory detention in certain situations. Another spike occurred in 2007 and the government mandated 34,000 beds per day be made available to house detainees. In 2012 there were more than 470,000 detainees in jails and detention facilities, more than 5 times those in 1996.

From 2002 to 2010 most of the growth of handling detainees was in facilities owned and operated by private companies like GEO Group, Inc. which owns and operates the detention facility on the tide flats in Tacoma. There was a growth of 206% in private facilities compared to 26% in public facilities.

The tide flats facility grew from 500 beds in 2004 to 1575 beds currently. The Department of Homeland Security guarantees that it will pay for a minimum of 1200 detainees per day. There is no problem filling this many beds. The national average that the government pays per detainee per day is $122. Much of the work operating the facility is done by detainees, who are paid $1 per day whether the individual works one hour or eight hours during the day.

The facility includes pods for sleeping and dining, a basketball court, a law library with computers with access to the Internet, kitchen, laundry room, space for religious services, and a visitation room. Detainees are provided a legal orientation. Detainees come from Alaska, Oregon, Washington, California and as far away as Texas. And their families come to visit. There is a no contact rule during visitations.

Living conditions have been at the center of the hunger strikes.

Sara Sluszka

People detained at the Northwest Detention Center are awaiting determination by a judge of their immigration status – whether they will be deported back to their country of origin or released to the community. 90 percent of detainees are male and come from over 70 countries – the majority from Mexico and Central America. Some have overstayed their visa. Some were picked up in a routine traffic stop and couldn’t show proper documentation. Others were seized in raids at home or work.

Detainees are not normally provided legal representation by the government or GEO Group. They have to arrange their own legal counsel, possibly pro bono. The appeals process can take two weeks to years. They can give up and agree to be deported. Some are fearful of going back to their country of origin.

Mental competency is a new legal issue – whether a detainee has a mental disorder that makes him or her unable to understand the detention and deportation proceedings. A determination that the detainee is not competent requires the judge to order a qualified legal representative.

Local detainers are refusing to hold immigrants since a court case in Oregon found that local law enforcement can be sued for holding immigrants past their criminal penalty.

Trent England

He excused himself from being knowledgeable about detention programs and practices. He contributed what he described as the long view – a theoretical perspective and a practical perspective. His philosophical perspective is that it is important to separate incentives from intentions.

Our nation is founded on principles. Everyone is equal in terms of human dignity. When we see pictures of detention we react negatively. We care about people. But if we have a system where we say don’t come here illegally and don’t enforce it or leave people hopeful that they can ignore the laws, that leads to more people dying in the Southwest, more human trafficking and more illegal immigration. Politicians may have good intentions, but intentions don’t matter. What matters is incentives. The law is opaque, designed for attorneys. What we need is bright-line rules. We need to make clear to people thinking about coming here the consequences of coming illegally.

Present and past administrations have done a bad job in immigration reform, proving that either party can get it wrong.

While it is important to try to improve conditions for those in detention, it is also important to recognize that people come to this country to escape worse conditions than they experience in the detention centers.

This is not a partisan issue. The immigration system is severely flawed and needs to be fixed.


Q: Adam Smith has introduced The Accountability in Immigration Detention Act, which deals with improving standards and living conditions in detention centers around the country. What are the chances of its passage?

A: Robin: Adam Smith became involved, after he visited the detention center here during the hunger strike. He was horrified by what he saw there and has since met with family members of detainees and sponsored this bill which addresses issues that were at the heart of the hunger strike. The awareness raised by the hunger strikes increases its chances of passage. And this is not a left vs. right issue. It is small and can get done before mid-terms, also increasing its chances.

A: Trent: It is a good thing, because it is a targeted bill, not a complex, politically laden bill. Congress should deal with little issues one by one.

Q: What has been the economic impact of the Northwest Detention Center?

A: Robin: When GEO Corp proposed the center, they said it would bring 200 jobs to Tacoma. That was the reason that some members of the Tacoma City Council supported it. We have not been able to quantify how many of those jobs went to people already in the Tacoma area versus people who were coming in from elsewhere. There haven’t been any extra costs for things like emergency services, which was one of the original concerns. So, it hasn’t cost Tacoma very much. But it is not clear that it was a boon.

When people are let out of the detention center, they are let out on the tide flats with whatever clothes they came with. There are a lot of community people involved in providing resources: legal, social services, clothing and other necessities. These resources could be directed elsewhere in our community, if the federal government took responsibility here.

Q: Are there other more organized efforts to assist people coming out of the detention center?

A: Robin: I am chair of Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest, which provides social services to immigrants both in detention and upon release. When they have to stay here to pursue their case in Seattle, we look for housing, clothing and other support.

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