by Luna Reyna
Twenty years ago, the Tacoma City Council unanimously approved the creation of a federal detention center on Tacoma’s tideflats without the slightest objection from community members. What nobody anticipated at the time was that this federal detention center would become a focal point for detention abolitionists and human rights activists across the nation. This facility is now known as the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) and it is run by GEO Group, the largest private prison company in the country. Accusations of human rights violations, followed by countless lawsuits, have remained constant since the facility was built.
On August 4 2020, in collaboration with La Resistencia, a grassroots organization that has been working for over five years to shut down the facility, and the Commission on Immigrant and Refugees Affairs (CIRA), the Tacoma City Council passed a resolution advocating for the release of all detainees at NWIPC on parole or bond. According to the official announcement, the resolution intends to “directly address health and racial equity issues impacting individuals detained at the NWIPC.”
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are a driving force behind the resolution. Medical experts who work for the Department of Homeland Security and co-founded and co-direct the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights warned in March that those in ICE detention facilities are at an imminent risk from the virus. With 15 confirmed cases at NWIPC and the concerning conditions within the facility, City officials are taking what they see as necessary action. Council Member Chris Beale called on ICE “to properly respond to this public health emergency by releasing all detainees in the Northwest ICE Processing Center and ceasing operations throughout the duration of the pandemic.”
This is an incredible win for abolition advocates and organizations like La Resistencia who have paved the way for progress of this magnitude. “This was a process of years of work, honestly,” says Maru Villalpando, an immigration activist who founded La Resistencia. Working with City officials was difficult. “We didn’t have any support in the City of Tacoma. When Strickland was the mayor in 2014, she actually came to a tour of the facility in the middle of the hunger strikes. I walked up to her and I asked her what her position was. She was very dismissive. She brushed us off.”
But over the years, the City of Tacoma started to feel pressure from its residents. CIRA was created in December 2017 “to better engage Tacoma’s immigrant and refugee communities.” La Resistencia utilized CIRA as a way to engage with the City and attend City meetings in relation to NWIPC. The development of CIRA, combined with new progressive council members who were open to listening to community organizations, past council members who were humble enough to admit that they could garner insight from community members and resources, and the onset of COVID-19, contributed to the City Council’s decision. “The City was able to gain valuable insight into what has been reported by detainees and their families through meetings with members of CIRA and La Resistencia, which helped frame the key declarations of Resolution 40636,” explains Nick Bayard, Staff Liaison for CIRA.
“This is how things should happen in my mind,” says Council Member Kristina Walker. “We have opportunities to sit down with advocates and community groups to build policy that works best for the community. I think that my colleagues are very good at admitting when they don’t quite understand something.” It is that humility and collaborative work that allowed for progress, she adds. “Also having those trusted relationships. Knowing that the folks at La Resistencia are going to share good information with us and are going to try and put it into policy language that we can use. I know them. I trust them. I know that they’re bringing us good information.”
Still, since NWIPC is a federal facility, City officials do not have the authority to force GEO Group or ICE to release those detained under parole and bond and there has been no response from either since the resolution was passed. GEO Group has also yet to respond to the South Seattle Emerald’s request for comment. “We weren’t necessarily expecting that ICE or Geo Group would suddenly say, ‘Oh hey, you’re right,’” says Anita Gallagher with City of Tacoma’s Government Relations Office. That said, she believes there is enormous value in the City Council publicly condemning the living conditions and racial inequities at NWIPC. “If we don’t make that statement at a local level, we can’t really expect a change to occur at a higher level, which is where the level of authority lies.”
Moving forward, one possible method of oversight is through the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD). “In keeping this resolution focused on the health of the detainees, it is one more way that we can continue to keep the pressure on at this facility,” explains Council Member Walker. But this might not prove fruitful, according to Bayard. “TPCHD’s stance has been that NWIPC is a federal facility,” he says, “and under that interpretation of jurisdictional oversight, health inspections by TPCHD are voluntary, not mandatory.”
City officials are also looking to emulate the oversight that Colorado lawmakers recently created for the Aurora ICE Processing Center, another GEO Group facility. The legislation, passed in June, asserts that “public and private facilities that house noncitizens for civil immigration proceedings” qualify as “penal institutions” and this fact “specifically authorizes unannounced follow-up inspections” by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). “That’s a big change and one that we are certainly hoping to work out with our Congressional Delegation as well,” says Gallagher.
Regardless, due to COVID-19 and the generally lengthy bureaucratic process, implementing the actions expressed in the resolution will take some time. Meanwhile, the conditions of NWIPC continue to be a danger to detainees and the general public. “We have heard second-hand reports that transfers in and out of the facility continue to occur and that medical attention to detainees with regards to COVID-19 continues to be dangerously lacking,” Bayard says.
As a result, advocates continue to keep up the pressure. “We will continue with the Free Them All campaign,” asserts Villalpando. “We’re still trying to figure out how to make the Governor take a stand. We know that he is handling an emergency, as he should, but this is also an emergency and people in detention are also Washingtonians.”
Luna Reyna is a South King County-based journalist. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering the work and voices of marginalized communities. Whether she is investigating the impact of environmental racism or immigration as a movement journalist, interviewing an artist whose work sheds light on the casualties of war as an arts journalist, or covering restorative justice efforts as a self-described “Cannabis Chronic-ler,” her work is in service of liberation and advancing justice.
Featured image is attributed to the Common Language Project under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.