by Bunthay Cheam
On Wednesday, June 16, Gov. Inslee received a demand letter, signed by over 60 community organizations, calling for an end to Washington State’s ongoing collaboration with ICE. In tandem with the letter was a press conference, “A Call to Gov. Inslee to End the DOC to Deportation Pipeline.”
The letter and press conference were organized by the Liberation Not Deportation Coalition which consists of over 60 grassroots groups and individuals that organize on behalf of and by community members impacted by the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) and its partnership with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm of the Department of Homeland Security through a prison to deportation pipeline.
The pipeline is a partnership between DOC and ICE that ultimately facilitates the transfer of some Washingtonians to civil detention facilities after being placed under an “ICE detainer.” These detainers are placed on an individual in DOC custody if they are not a US citizen and believed to have violated federal immigration law, thereby making them deportable.
In May 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed the Keep Washington Working Act (KWW). The Act codified into law equal protection of all Washingtonian residents, regardless of origin of birth by mandating that state agencies, including law enforcement agencies, end collaboration and partnerships with federal immigration agencies.
In April 2021, Inslee signed HB 1090, which bans private, for-profit prison companies from operating in the state, setting into motion the eventual closure of the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC), formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), at the end of its contract in 2025. The NWIPC, located in Tacoma, is run by the Geo Group on behalf of ICE and is the largest immigration detention facility in Washington State with a capacity of over 1,500 beds.
Before signing the bill, Inslee stated, “Washington has not supported use of private prisons, and this bill continues that policy by prohibiting private detention facilities from operating in the state.”
While these two pieces of legislation are in the spirit of ending cooperation with federal immigration authorities, Washington State DOC and ICE continue to collaborate. When Inslee signed KWW into law, he exempted the DOC which continues to impact immigrant and refugee communities disproportionately.
“Almost two months ago, Gov. Inslee signed HB 1090 into law, prohibiting the operation and use of private for-profit detention facilities in this state. Yet the same governor continues the same practice of collaborating with federal immigration authorities to hand Washingtonians over to the very facility whose continued existence he has declared violates Washington State law,” said Angélica Cházaro, a member of the Liberation Not Deportation Coalition during the press conference last week.
As a result of this ongoing collaboration, an incarcerated individual’s experience upon reaching the end of their sentence can be wildly different depending on their immigration status.
“Normally, once Washington State prisoners are successfully done serving their time, they are released home to their family and loved ones. In my case and other immigrants’, we face an ongoing detention and incarceration that serves no good purpose,” said Ayman Ibrahim, an incarcerated community member representing the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, who faces deportation to East Africa because he is not a citizen.
This spring, Ibrahim said DOC officials approached him “in an attempt to pressure me to sign papers that included conditions of detention that are imposed by ICE. I asked them, ‘Why is ICE conditions in a DOC release document? That should be related only to my criminal case.’ I received no answer. I know I was supposed to sign my release papers, but instead I was being pressured to sign and to dig my own grave.”
It can be dangerous in federal custody, which is why organizers want the transfers to end. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson took the GEO Group to federal court in 2017 demanding it pay working detainees the state’s then minimum wage of $12 instead of $1 a day. A jury is currently deliberating on the case. Detainees at NWIPC are also currently on a hunger strike to protest ICE continued transferring in of prisoners who are known to have been exposed to COVID-19.
After being transferred into ICE custody, people face indefinite detention as they are worked through the system towards their removal and deportation.
“I missed out on 2.5 extra years from my son,” said Tien Ho, who was recently released from the NWIPC after 2.5 years. By the time Tien Ho was released, she had spent more than double the time in detention than the judge had originally sentenced. “This is very important for everyone to understand: It’s not only the person who’s serving time in ICE detention [that it impacts] but also the family as well as the community,” she said. Because Tien Ho is also not a citizen, she still faces possible deportation to Vietnam.
The impact of incarcerated individuals having an ICE detainer placed on their files can start in state custody, long before arriving into federal custody. The detainer also affects access to resources for incarcerated individuals during their prison sentence before they are handed over to ICE. “You lose access to work release, you lose access to school and other programs,” said Cházaro
There are currently 200 detainees at the NWIPC. Since Inslee signed HB 1090 into law, the majority of the 200 people incarcerated in the NWIPC are now transfers from Washington State’s and Oregon’s DOC facilities.
To view the press conference in its entirety, visit the following webpage.
The #LiberationNotDeportation Coalition consists of community groups that include Free Them All WA, George Jackson Freedom Coalition (GJFC), Khmer Anti Deportation Advocacy Group (KHAAG), Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (FIGHT), Asian and Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG), Nuestro Grupo Cultural (NGC), Sông2Sea (S2S), and more.
Bunthay Cheam was born in the Khao I Dang refugee camp. He is a storyteller, activist, and lifelong resident of South Park.
📸 Featured Image: Demonstrators holds signs at a March 30, 2020, rally in solidarity with those incarcerated at the now Northwest ICE Processing Center (formerly Northwest Detention Center) in Tacoma, WA. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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