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News / Northwest

There have been calls to close Tacoma’s immigration lock-up for years. Why hasn’t it?

ICE's 10-year contract is set to expire in 2025

By Peter Talbot, The News Tribune
Published: April 21, 2024, 6:00am

TACOMA — Twenty years ago this month, a detention center for immigrants facing possible deportation opened for business in Tacoma. People have called for its closure ever since, but a contractor continues to run it, raking in millions in profits each year.

The facility’s use of solitary confinement as a means of punishment, deployment of chemical agents on detainees and its now-ended work program that paid detainees a dollar a day have drawn criticism. Most recently, a delegation of 12 U.S. Senators sent a letter to top immigration and homeland security leaders saying that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wasn’t following its own policies on solitary confinement and that it was in clear violation of international norms.

Efforts to close the detention center have come from the Tacoma City Council, the Washington Legislature — with some bipartisan support — and local activists, who have staged protests, camped outside the facility and taken part in hunger strikes to protest poor conditions for detainees.

Washington state lawmakers took a stand against the NWIPC in 2021 by passing a law that banned the operation of privately-run, for-profit prisons and detention centers. The Tacoma facility was the only place that fit the bill, and, if all had gone according to plan, it would be closing in September 2025. That’s when ICE’s 10-year contract with the GEO Group, which runs the center for ICE, is set to expire.

But recent court rulings have undermined those efforts, showing that in the battle between a state’s right to self-determination and the interests of the federal government, the buck stops with the feds.

ICE did not respond to repeated inquiries from The News Tribune asking for the agency’s perspective on why an immigrant detention center is necessary in Washington state. The GEO Group told the newspaper that decisions about the location and size of the United States’ immigration processing centers are made by the federal government to meet its obligation to enforce laws passed by Congress.

“Local communities and states have a voice in establishing national policies through their elected representatives, all in accordance with the principles of federalism set forth in the United States Constitution,” GEO Group spokesperson Christopher Ferreira said.

How did we get here?

Before the Northwest ICE Processing Center opened in Tacoma in 2004, a much smaller federal immigration detention center operated in Seattle.

The facility was located east of the Kingdome, and from 1989 it was operated by Correctional Services Corp., at the time one of the nation’s largest private prison contractors. As the number of noncitizen immigrants detained by the federal government increased in the 1990s, the Seattle facility’s 250-bed capacity couldn’t keep up with the demand for space.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, a precursor to several agencies in the Department of Homeland Security, including ICE, also found it too costly to maintain the 1930s-era facility. According to documents on ICE.gov released through the Freedom of Information Act, the INS in 1999 made a formal bid request for a contractor to build and run a facility that was double the size of the Seattle detention center and within 25 miles of SeaTac International Airport.

Correctional Services Corp. became interested in Tacoma after facing roadblocks in Auburn, Pacific and Sumner. After a fight over two possible locations — one wanted by the Port of Tacoma for future expansion — the INS chose the 16-acre site on East J Street.

A 2012 investigation by The News Tribune and InvestigateWest later reported that the Tacoma City Council played an important role in allowing the facility, then known as the Northwest Detention Center, to be built. Unlike other nearby cities, Tacoma leaders didn’t fight the Correctional Service Corp.’s interest in the city as a location for a new detention center.

In March 2000, the Tacoma City Council unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution that supported the proposed facility at the East J Street site. But in the years before construction began, the city’s politics shifted. Bill Baarsma became mayor in 2002, and he strongly opposed the detention center.

So when the private prison contractor sought state financing for the project, it got the help of Councilman Kevin Phelps, who pledged Tacoma’s “continued support” in a letter that lacked approval from the council or the support of Baarsma.

Construction moved forward, and the detention center opened in April 2004. By the following summer, Correctional Services Corp. had agreed to sell all of its facilities and contracts to the GEO Group, a Florida-based company that operates correctional facilities around the world.

Under new ownership, the capacity of the federal immigration facility in Tacoma ballooned. Between 2005 and the end of 2009, new construction brought it from 500 beds to 1,575.

The GEO Group doesn’t just make money on every head. Its contract with ICE guarantees payment for a certain amount of bed space, occupied or not. As of October 2021, the contract required ICE to pay a daily rate of $131.86 per detainee, according to a report from the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security. Even when the detention center’s population is low, the contract compels ICE to pay for a minimum of 1,181 detainees.

That means that during fiscal year 2022, ICE paid the GEO Group more than $40 million for unused bed space. GEO now operates 18 facilities for ICE, and last year it reported more than $1.5 billion in revenue for its secure services operations in the United States, according to the Security and Exchange Commission. Federal court records state that between 2010 and 2018 the company’s profits at the NWIPC ranged from $18.6 million and $23.5 million.

The cost of housing each detainee has since risen. An ICE official said in a statement to The News Tribune that the “estimated average direct adult bed cost per day” was $145 for fiscal year 2024. The official said the agency enters detention contracts with guaranteed minimum rates or monthly operating cost pricing to ensure staffing levels and conditions are appropriate at varying population levels.

Detention contracts with this kind of pricing are also used by the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons, according to ICE. It allows the federal government to procure beds at a reduced rate, giving them the ability to predict how many people are detained on a regular basis, which ICE said saves taxpayer money.

People held at the detention center are suspected of being in the country illegally or are awaiting deportation.

Recently, many detainees have been asylum seekers brought north after being apprehended at the southern border, according to Enoka Herat, policing and immigration policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. Others are picked up on warrants or are brought to the detention center following release from the Washington Department of Corrections. Last year, the average length of a person’s stay was 66 days, according to ICE data, though some stay far longer.

Efforts to close the center

Washington state has taken steps to close the Northwest ICE Processing Center, most notably by passing HB 1090 in 2021, outlawing the operation of private detention facilities in the state.

The bill passed the House of Representatives with some bipartisan support in a vote of 76 to 21, with 19 Republicans voting in favor. It faced more opposition in the Senate, where all 20 Republicans and one Democrat voted against it in the final vote. Still, the 28 to 21 vote got the bill to the governor’s desk.

Sen. Chris Gildon, a Republican who represents part of Pierce County, including Puyallup, questioned the bill in the Senate Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation Committee’s public hearing. He said lawmakers needed to consider that the bill could be preempted by federal law, and its passage could be premature.

Others who spoke against the bill in public Senate hearings were employees of the GEO Group or of a trade organization for government contractors. Bruce Scott, facility administrator of the NWIPC, said hundreds of employees and thousands of families have relied on employment with the GEO Group to support themselves, put children through college and contribute to the state’s economy.

More than 1,000 people noted their support for the bill in the Senate’s first public hearing, and 638 people signaled their opposition to it.

Passing that law was an important statement from lawmakers, according to Herat, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. She said it signaled to the federal government that this isn’t how our state thinks immigrants should be treated.

“Anytime you bring a profit motive into detaining people, it incentivizes cutting costs over the ability for humans to thrive,” Herat said. “It was a milestone in Washington state taking a stand in that direction.”

The bill followed a similar California law passed in 2019, Assembly Bill 32, which was meant to prohibit incarceration in for-profit prison facilities by 2028.

Those plans were dashed in 2022 in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals after the U.S. Department of Justice and GEO Group sued to stop the California law from being enforced. In an 8-3 decision, a panel of judges found that the law breached the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which holds that federal law takes precedence over state law, prohibiting states from encroaching on the federal government’s powers.

The decision applies in Washington, too. An attorney for Gov. Jay Inslee and State Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote in a brief legal document filed in June last year that as long as the 9th Circuit decision stands and as long as the NWIPC is operated by the GEO Group under exclusive contract with ICE, Washington state would not enforce HB 1090.

The Supremacy Clause is the main obstacle that states looking to end the practice of locking up noncitizen immigrants are coming up against, according to Herat. There are two important parts of it: the doctrines of intergovernmental immunity and preemption.

Intergovernmental immunity prohibits state laws that regulate the United States directly or discriminate against the federal government or those it deals with (contractors like GEO). And a state law can be preempted by federal law for several reasons, the most pertinent in this case being if the law is an obstacle to accomplishing Congress’ objectives.

The majority of the 9th Circuit judges found that whether you look at the California law under the lens of intergovernmental immunity or preemption, California — and by extension Washington state — cannot exert that level of control over the feds’ detention operations.

“To comply with California law, ICE would have to cease its ongoing immigration detention operations in California and adopt an entirely new approach in the state,” the panel of judges wrote.

The judges noted that ICE owns just one facility in California, and it’s occupied by another agency. There are a number of reasons ICE relies on contractors like GEO to run most of its facilities rather than building and operating its own, the judges wrote. The number of detained individuals in the United States and their location fluctuates frequently, and ICE has to have flexibility to meet changing demand for bed space.

That reliance on the private sector creates another obstacle to change, Herat explained.

“A private entity is that much more removed from the democratic process, from civic engagement, from political pressures,” she said.

GEO is a publicly-traded corporation, but it has been criticized for its lack of transparency. Tacoma City Councilwoman Kristina Walker, in her public testimony supporting HB 1090, said the council had filed Freedom of Information Act requests to follow up on serious concerns voiced by the community about inhumane treatment of detainees, but they were mostly rejected on the grounds that disclosing the information would entail divulging “trade secrets.”

Other efforts in Washington state to restrict the enforcement and removal operations of ICE have been successful in part because they’ve avoided discriminating against the federal government’s contractors.

Take the Keep Washington Working Act for example. Passing that law in 2019 stopped local law enforcement from sharing information about a person’s immigration status with federal immigration authorities.

Before that law took effect, Herat said, a traffic stop could lead officers to tip off ICE about a person’s immigration status, and the individual could be detained at a county jail until the agency rounded them up and brought them to Tacoma. The result of that law is most of the detainees at NWIPC are not picked up in the state, Herat said.

“Most of them are from the southern border,” Herat said. “And I think that shows the success of those policies that passed.”

According to ICE statistics, 72 percent of the 38,500 detainees who were in ICE detention nationwide at the end of January were transferred from out of state by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

When lawmakers set their sights on changes to the NWIPC itself rather than the functions of their own agencies, Washington state can been seen as interfering with how the federal government does business with its private contractors. That sets itself up for challenges from companies like the GEO Group.

The company noted the financial risks related to public-private partnerships in its 2023 financial performance report to the SEC, stating that public and political opposition could hinder its ability to obtain new contracts or refinance debt. It said the New York state Legislature, for example, had proposed a bill that would prohibit state-chartered banks from investing in and providing financing for privately-operated secure facilities.

Recent court rulings that found that laws such as those passed in Washington and California are unconstitutional show the tension between states and the federal government, Herat said.

“It seems that ultimately it will be up to the federal government to make a decision about continuing private detention of noncitizens in the face of many states pushing back against that agenda and calling for more humane response to noncitizens,” Herat said.

Why close the NWIPC?

A shutdown of the Northwest ICE Processing Center would not be without precedent. ICE discontinued use of an Alabama detention center in 2022 that the agency said had a long history of “serious deficiencies” identified in facility inspections.

It was a much smaller detention center compared to the NWIPC, with a capacity for 357 detainees, per detentionwatchnetwork.org. ICE described it as having “limited operational significance.” The NWIPC, on the other hand, is one of the largest in the nation, and the only one of ICE’s 135 detention facilities located in the Pacific Northwest.

The detention center in Tacoma has a long history of controversy over conditions for immigrants, including over inadequate food, medical care and laundry services. Detainees have frequently taken part in hunger strikes as a form of protest.

La Resistencia, one of the most outspoken groups that continues to call for the NWIPC to be shuttered, formed in 2014 after detainees staged a 56-day hunger strike. The strikes have persisted over the years. In 2018, ACLU Washington filed a lawsuit against ICE and the GEO Group after a detainee was allegedly beaten and put in solitary confinement after participating in one.

Multiple hunger strikes occurred in 2023, one as long as 53 days, according to La Resistencia. They’ve continued this year, particularly after 61-year-old Charles Leo Daniel died March 7 while in solitary confinement. Researchers from Washington’s Center for Human Rights found that Daniel served 1,244 days in solitary confinement at the NWIPC in two terms separated by only two days.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner has yet to publicly identify the cause of his death.

Daniel was detained by ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in March 2020, according to the agency. He’d previously been serving an 18-year prison sentence for a 2003 murder conviction in King County Superior Court.

While held at the detention center in Tacoma, an immigration judge ordered on Dec. 14, 2020 that Daniel was to be deported to his home country of Trinidad and Tobago, a nation of two islands off the northeastern coast of Venezuela.

ICE has not answered questions about why that deportation never occurred. Vanessa Gutierrez, deputy director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said in her experience representing people going through immigration proceedings, appeals are often what make a person’s case drag on, sometimes for years.

Maru Mora Villalpando, a founder of La Resistencia, and at least nine more activists joined detainees’ hunger strike and called on Sens. Murray and Cantwell to make public statements on Daniel’s death and for an independent investigation into it. Mora Villalpando ended her strike after nearly two weeks, but others in and outside the facility were continuing their action at the end of March.

The NWIPC saw an uptick in the number of emergency calls for service to the facility last year, according to data from South Sound 911, with significant increases in calls for medical aid (up 184 percent), reports of assaults (up 200 percent) and reports of sex crimes (up 300 percent).

So far this year, the detention center’s calls for service are on track to surpass each year’s totals since 2020, and it has recorded five suicide attempts as of March 13 — one more than the last four years combined.

The increase in need for emergency services is paralleled by growth in the facility’s average daily population. That number was at a low of 362 people in fiscal year 2021, and since then it has grown to an average daily population of 756 people in March 2024.

In a statement to The News Tribune, an ICE spokesperson said changes in population don’t correlate with a change in the response to the safety or security needs of detainees.

“ICE is committed to ensuring that all those in its custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments. As a part of that commitment, all people in ICE custody have access to medical appointments and 24-hour emergency care.”

GEO spokesperson Ferreira said the circumstances that lead to 911 calls vary widely and in all cases staff is trained to err on the side of safety and to seek assistance in accordance with established protocols.

The Tacoma City Council, despite its central role in allowing the detention center to be built, has more recently supported efforts to close it. Council Member Catherine Ushka testified in support of the state Legislature’s bill that banned private detention facilities in the state, telling the House Public Safety Committee that the mission of for-profit prison companies runs counter to the “highest responsibility” of putting human rights first.

In August 2020, Mayor Victoria Woodards and the council unanimously passed a resolution calling on ICE to release detainees and allow them to continue their immigration cases out of custody.

Why keep the ICE processing center open?

Arguments for keeping the Northwest ICE Processing Center running have focused on the jobs created by the facility, the fact that its closure would mean moving detainees far out of state and the role it plays in ICE’s enforcement and removal operations.

Employees of the GEO Group and a trade organization for government contractors have pushed back over concerns with conditions at the NWIPC. In public testimony at the state Legislature, then-director of community outreach for GEO Care, Emanuel Barr — now vice president of government relations — said he wanted to address “a few false narratives.”

GEO does not provide health care at the facility, Barr said, it is provided directly by government services. ICE and GEO have referred to the NWIPC’s health services as top-notch. The University of Washington’s Center of Human Rights, for example, found that when a New Mexico ICE facility’s transgender unit was closed in January 2020 over findings that it was providing inadequate health care, 13 women were transferred to Tacoma, in part because ICE found it well-equipped to handle complex medical cases.

Barr also said GEO’s detention services include “multiple layers” of accountability, the greatest of which, he said, were those set forth by ICE in its Performance-Based National Detention Standards.

“These strictly govern how we operate with on-site federal contract monitors,” Barr said. “There’s nothing private about that.”

Federal Judge Benjamin Settle, seated in Tacoma, recently stated in a U.S. District Court ruling that despite GEO’s arguments, the Performance-Based National Detention Standards are not mandated by Congress. Documents cited by the company in support of its assertion showed at most, according to Settle, Congress’ desire for immigration detention facilities to be in compliance with the PBNDS.

Detention officers and a transport officer for GEO also spoke out against the closure of the NWIPC. Speaking before a state Senate committee, a transport officer said that in the 11 years she’s worked in the transportation section, she’s picked up hundreds of detainees with convictions for rape, murder, child rape, child murder, child molestation and incest. She said she had family members with small children, and she found it immoral to release people with those criminal histories.

A psychologist who said he’d worked at the NWIPC as an officer for more than a decade described how he thought the facility could help people through the immigration process. He said the NWIPC needed education programs for immigrants and funding to help eligible detainees obtain legal status, while simultaneously deporting those who pose a threat to communities.

Efforts to improve conditions at the Tacoma detention center or enhance state oversight have seen bipartisan support. Former U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican who served portions of King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties, and is now running for governor, told The News Tribune that he found troublesome reports of sexual assaults and excessive use of solitary confinement at the facility.

“Government transparency is key, whether that’s at the state or federal level,” Reichert said in a written statement to The News Tribune. “We must provide a secure, safe and humane environment as people await deportation or immigration processing.”

In the statehouse, Senate Republicans have been more unified in opposing bills that interfere with federal immigration enforcement.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, who represents East Pierce County and parts of King County, said in a phone call that the state can’t do anything about immigration because it’s a federal issue, but he thinks “illegal criminals” who are held in the state’s jails should be turned over to ICE. He questioned what would happen if the NWIPC were closed.

“Where are you going to put these people? You’re going to release them into the country?” Fornunato said.

Asked how he thinks the state should address concerns about conditions at the NWIPC, Fortunato suggested Senate or House joint memorials, where state lawmakers express their concerns in a letter to the federal government. He said that can give more weight to the congressional delegation’s arguments in their chambers.

Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican from Spokane Valley who leads the Senate Law & Justice Committee, said Democrats who pushed HB 1090 through the statehouse ignored Republicans’ concerns about “glaring” Supremacy Clause issues. The passage of laws further attempting to close the facility are an exercise in futility, he said.

“If U.S. Senators Murray and Cantwell and other members of our state’s congressional delegation think the Tacoma detention center needs to be closed or at least undergo changes, then they should take action,” Padden said in a written statement. “It’s sad to hear about the recent attempted suicides at the Tacoma detention facility. If the borders were better protected, fewer illegal immigrants would be brought to such facilities and there would be fewer suicide attempts.”

What’s next?

In Tacoma, ICE has more than a year to negotiate its next contract with the operator of the Northwest ICE Processing Center.

The Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security has recommended that ICE review its needs at the facility and re-work the guaranteed minimum amount of bed space ICE pays for, stating it was concerned with the agency’s stewardship of taxpayer money.

As the debate around how to handle immigration continues in the lead-up to the November presidential election, ICE is reportedly facing a major budget shortfall of $700 million. The Washington Post, the New York Times and other news outlets reported in February that after a national security and border reform bill was voted down in the Senate, ICE drafted a plan to release thousands of immigrants from detention and slash its capacity from 38,000 beds to 22,000.

A spokesperson for DHS told the New York Times that the fact the department was considering options doesn’t mean it will take action immediately or at all.

Mora Villalpando said her fight against the Tacoma detention center started a decade before she formed La Resistencia. She said the last 20 years has been an exhausting battle of David and Goliath, but there has been progress. Tacoma City Council didn’t want to talk to her volunteer collective when they first started, she said, but now the city and state have agreed that they have some responsibility to address the detention center in their backyard. The group also now counts among its ranks people who were formerly detained at the NWIPC.

“I feel more confident now than ever before,” Mora Villalpando said.

Gutierrez advocates for a larger movement to limit or end detention completely, something La Resistencia has also called for.

“If we were able to get it shut down, what ICE is going to do is just ship people to detention centers in other states,” said Gutierrez, deputy director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “So it really needs to be a national movement.”

Working for a nonprofit legal services organization for the past 14 years, Gutierrez has represented many individuals who are going through immigration proceedings. She said she’s disappointed more progress hasn’t been made in shutting down the detention center in Tacoma.

Even if the federal government continues to turn to detention as a means of dealing with noncitizen immigrants, Gutierrez said, there is room to further protect people’s human rights.

For example, unlike criminal cases, people in immigration proceedings don’t have a right to an attorney. Oregon has a program to help people access immigration attorneys, Gutierrez said, and Washington has funded some legal representation for immigration cases, but she says it’s a fraction of the need.

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“It’s a really unjust, harsh, challenging system, and immigrants just face this really uphill battle to fight their cases,” she said. “And some people are successful and they’re able to stay, but it’s typically because they have representation.”

“And so many people go unrepresented, especially in the detention center.”