Did you know that Tacoma is home to the 5th largest Immigration Detention Center in the U.S.? Though the U.S. shares the longest international border in the world with Canada, just a few miles from us, it is the border to the south with Mexico that is one of today’s major issues. How is it that Washington, abutting the border with no wall, can possibly be affected by the Southern border over 1200 miles away?
The Northwest Detention Center, located on the Tacoma Tideflats, was built in 2004. to hold 500 detainees. It has been expanded twice and now has capacity for 1575 adult men and women. It is operated by GEO Group, a for-profit prison corporation, under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) a division of the Department of Homeland Security. In 2015, GEO Group signed a 10-year contract for the Tacoma facility to receive $99.20/day per detainee. In 2016, they reaped over $61 million in revenue from ICE for their work in Tacoma. The facility also contains an immigration court. People detained at NWDC are held without charges while that court decides if they will be deported or remain in the US.
Many Tacoma residents remain unaware of the NWDC in the port. Over a decade ago, ADVOCATES FOR IMMIGRANTS IN DETENTION (originally NWDC Roundtable) began hosting conversations about the Center to make the community aware of its existence and of the needs of those released from this prison experience. Those who are released after a legal hearing leave this fenced, windowless facility onto the unfamiliar streets of the Tideflats, in a strange country, wearing the clothes they wore when arrested, and with a small plastic bag with their belongings. While some have lived and worked in the Northwest, many of those released were taken into custody when they claimed asylum at the Southern border and are not equipped for the cold rainy Northwest climate. They may not speak English and many have no friends or family within hundreds or even thousands of miles. Most have no cash or phone to contact anyone for help. Though they have access to pay-phones while in the Center, each call costs a minimum of $1 which is what they are paid for a full day’s work in the facility.
In 2015, AIDNW purchased a 20-year-old RV that is parked just outside the exit gate of the NWDC. Referred to as the Welcome Center, it is staffed 5 days a week by volunteers who provide services including: a way to call friends and relatives, backpacks, hygiene travel kits, climate-appropriate donated clothing, transportation to the next leg of their journey, and, if needed, transportation and short-term stays offered by partnering groups and organizations. This year, AIDNW moved its office to a two story home in the north-end that provides housing opportunities for a few men and women who need time to determine their next step. They are currently searching for a new facility near the same north end location.
With only one part-time paid employee and a 9 person Board, AIDNW relies heavily on their 165 dedicated volunteers and other social service and faith-based organizations to partner in their efforts. If you and/or your organization would like to learn more about their work, contact the office at (253) 572-9659 or go to the website aidnw.org to learn more. Needed items are listed and updated on the site. Currently there’s a fundraising campaign to replace the old RV with one with no leaks, and that will require fewer costly repairs.
To respond to the community’s growing curiosity and interest in immigration policy and detention, AIDNW recently established a Speaker’s Bureau of involved volunteers who will be happy to arrange a time to come to your church or organization to share more information. Call (253) 572-9659.
My friend who provided this article remarked: “I wish I had a picture of the beautiful little girl, 2nd grader, who’d dressed up in a beautiful white organza dress, new sparkly pastel keds and had her hair french- braided to come visit daddy…who was being deported back to Honduras on Monday. The family, mother, brother, aunt, etc. had driven from Portland in 2 cars to say goodbye.”