“On any given day, 30,000 motorists on a state highway less than a quarter mile away drive past its sprawling gray campus, many unaware of its existence or back-story.”
This week, the Tacoma (WA) News Tribune published a five part series, “Center of Detention,” outlining a complex and often unjust system of immigration enforcement. The series, based on interviews with 75 people, and over 20,000 pages of records, touches on corporate profit-driven prisons, environmental violations, institutional duplicity, and an inspiring campaign spearheaded over many years by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee-Tacoma and BORDC's Vice President (and November 2010 Patriot award winner) Tim Smith.
Despite government claims that agencies emphasize the detention of violent criminals, the Northwest Detention Center, like other immigration detention centers, holds many immigrants whose worse crimes are traffic offenses.
Oscar Campos Estrada is a 39-year old father of three from Pierce County in Washington State currently awaiting deportation in the Northwest Detention Center. In 1991, when a petition was filed on his behalf so he could obtain resident status, Oscar could not have imagined he would find himself in a corporate detention facility in Tacoma, Washington.
The facility, opened in 2004, is described as:
… an institution described in the parlance of the federal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials as a “COCO” – a contractor-owned/contractor operated facility.
Over the past eight years, the low-slung complex run by a global corrections empire has steadily expanded next to a toxic sludge field near Commencement Bay. It has grown into a 1,575-bed facility, making it one of the largest immigration detention centers in the United States.
When Oscar was detained and questioned in relation to a Tacoma drug operation, he was released but was unaware of why. Unknowingly, Oscar agreed in 1999 to voluntarily leave the country in exchange for his release. His story continued for years and included multiple petitions for a green card, each facing various complications, including changes in his marital status after submitting the application.
“Immigration laws are changing every year,” he said. “You submit an application, it gets accepted and then the rules change or the waiting period expires. Everything is so complicated. For my brother, getting married helped him. But in my case, it hurt me. Some of these immigration laws are twisted.
In the Center’s inaugural year, more than 3,000 detainees were booked—an intake soaring past the annual average of the former detention center in Washington of only 1,000 detainees.
The detention boom in Tacoma reflected the beginnings of a national trend. Aside from the federal Patriot Act that helped pave the way for more deportations, the newly created Department of Homeland Security, with its Office of Detention Removal (DRO) and Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), drafted a 10-year strategy in 2002.
Called “Endgame,” the plan’s core mission was “to remove all removable aliens” in the United States – an estimated 12 million people – by 2012. To meet those ends, DHS had to create the capacity for holding and removing illegal immigrants. It needed more detention centers with more bed space.
Meanwhile, residents like Oscar were left to navigate a complex legal system. Though the series is honest about Oscar’s arrest history, it sheds a much needed light on the difficulties one faces and the lack of due process available to these individuals. Though a criminal charge would normally result in a speedy bond hearing, immigration court runs a bit differently, leaving people like Oscar in detention facilities like this one in Tacoma as they await justice. Immigration attorney Amy Kratz described the stark contrast between the experience of an individual in the typical US legal system and that encountered in the detention center:
“So then we have to wait to climb through the judge’s calendar just to get this guy back to work and feeding his family,” she said.
“This whole system just doesn’t entertain the presumption of liberty we’re supposed to have,” Kratz said. “The system is fundamentally on its head. Usually for a civil infraction – a traffic ticket, jaywalking – you don’t face detention.”
The detention center in Tacoma, Washington, along with others across the country, was growing rapidly to accommodate the influx of detainees resulting from increased arrests and the Endgame policy. In May, 2008, the GEO Group that privately owns the facility began working with the Department of Homeland Security to further increase capacity from an already expanded 1,030 beds (already leaving detainees lining the hallways) to 1,575 beds. The city of Tacoma was limited—the facilities zoning as a “correctional center” protected it, allowing the expansion to move forward.
Unfortunately for GEO, newer state ecology restrictions prohibited boring into soil nearby without state approval. The series cites the work of activist groups, including efforts of BORDC’s Vice President Tim Smith, who also leads the BORDC-Tacoma affiliate, for alerting local and state officials:
The Bill of Rights Defense Committee-Tacoma – a group led by a retired Army intelligence officer named Tim Smith – sent photographs showing a construction auger boring into the ground next to the detention center and pulling up soil. The work occurred just south of where a grass-capped containment cell covers a toxic benzene plume and other hazardous waste on a Superfund unit known as the “Tacoma Tar Pits.” The work appeared to violate a covenant put in place in 2003.
Ecology officials ultimately decided that ensuring the work was done properly was more appropriate than issuing fines, and deemed the levels of hazardous contaminants in the soil was reasonable “for an industrial work scenario.” Believing that GEO was not intentionally breaking the 2003 covenant barring unapproved boring, the project continued with only a delay.
Finishing construction in 2009, Homeland Security awarded the group another contract guaranteeing payment for a minimum population of 1,181 federal detainees:
The company would be paid $100.65 per day for each of those detainees. And for each detainee above the first 1,181, the federal government also agreed to pay $62.52 per day. “Minimum revenue guaranteed by the contract increased to $3.5 million monthly from $1.5 million,” a Standard & Poor’s credit review of the new contract later concluded. In all, GEO would make no less than $43.4 million per year – and up to $52.4 million annually – for its expanded immigration detention services in Tacoma.
This particular brand of corporate welfare is far from inexpensive. Millions of taxpayer dollars are being diverted to fill the Northwest Detention Center, and the thousands of undocumented residents navigating a never-ending battle of forms leave behind thousands of families now lacking breadwinners.
As for Oscar, his battle took an interesting turn:
The special employment authorization card came after federal immigration officials launched removal proceedings against the 39-year-old laborer, who slipped across the U.S. border more than 21 years ago.
“I’ve been trying half my life to get legal; now after they decide they want to deport me, they give me this,” said Oscar, holding the work permit. “And that’s why I say immigration laws are twisted.”