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News / Northwest

Japanese Americans call for closure of Tacoma’s immigration prison

By David Kroman, The Seattle Times
Published: February 19, 2024, 10:50am

One day before the Day of Remembrance, commemorating when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the incarceration of Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent during World War II, a group of protesters gathered outside Tacoma’s Northwest ICE Processing Center, pointing to the facility as evidence history is repeating itself.

The building, privately run by the Geo Group, is a “processing facility” for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and can hold more than 1,500 people at a time, many of whom are awaiting a decision on asylum claims or deportation proceedings.

The detention center has drawn consistent scrutiny, first by activists, then Washington lawmakers, amid reports of poor conditions from people inside. Geo Group has denied the accusations.

On Sunday, the primary group serving as a conduit for those complaints, La Resistencia, teamed with Tsuru for Solidarity, made up of descendants of those incarcerated during World War II, to call for the facility to be shut down.

Backed by drums, shakers and a PA system, the group cast chants over the fence toward the building, in hopes those inside could hear them. It’s no better than those World War II-era camps, they said.

Fifteen members of Kyle Kinoshita’s family were held at the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho. His mother then went on to push for reparations.

“These are types of experiences that we can’t forget,” said Kinoshita, president of the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League. “Whenever we see some people in a similar situation — you see lots of people of Japanese descent here — we resonate with that message.”

A Geo Group spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The detention center has been the subject of increasing protests in recent years, particularly following former President Donald Trump’s election. Many of those have been led or spurred by La Resistencia, whose primary spokesperson, Maru Mora-Villalpando, was herself nearly deported due to her undocumented status.

The group maintains contact with people inside and broadcast a video feed from one incarcerated person to the crowd protesting outside on Sunday. According to Mora-Villalpando, incarcerated people have been frequently going on hunger strikes this year over the center’s food and cleanliness.

Recently, Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries and Department of Health have both launched legal battles against the facility, alleging inspectors have been denied access. Lawmakers passed House Bill 1470 last year, requiring the center to open itself to more frequent health and safety inspections.

More than 100,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in the camps between 1942 and 1945. Many were briefly held at the Puyallup fairgrounds — where protests also occurred Sunday — before being sent to Idaho, California, Wyoming and elsewhere in the West. The first people imprisoned were taken from Bainbridge Island.