An immigrant finds the American dream – and loses it

Staff writerSeptember 9, 2012 

About the time a new detention center was set to open on Tacoma’s Tideflats, an illegal immigrant at a chicken slaughterhouse some 12 miles away kept busy supervising about a dozen employees.

For four years after illegally slipping across the U.S. border, Oscar Campos Estrada and his young family had bounced from town to town in Pierce County, following the itinerant lifestyle of a seasonal worker.

He had held more than a half dozen jobs – mostly low-paying and sometimes under-the-table work, such as washing dishes and picking crops. But in 1995, Oscar landed a laborer’s position at the poultry business and changed his life.

Family-run Starkel Poultry on South Hill mainly provided slaughtering and processing services, but for Oscar, it offered stability.

“They rented me a house on the grounds there,” Oscar said. “I lived there and worked there for nine years.”

During that time, Oscar expanded his work skills, enhanced his paycheck and grew his family. His oldest daughter, America, was joined by two younger siblings, brother Oscar Jr. and sister Magali. The family settled into the community.

“My kids were pretty much raised there,” Oscar said. “They all went through Puyallup schools.”

Oscar started at Starkel doing menial chores – hanging live chickens in preparation for slaughter. He eventually worked his way into a supervisor’s role, helping to run operations at the plant. Oscar learned to maintain and repair machinery, and he picked up welding, plumbing and commercial truck-driving skills.

“I learned a lot of things there,” Oscar said. “Probably the most important thing was learning how to treat people and how I should be treated in the workplace.”

But as Oscar well knew, security can be fleeting. Relationship troubles led to big life changes. Oscar separated from his wife, then made a tough decision about his job.

“It was time to move on,” he said.

By the time he’d left Starkel in 2004, Oscar had raised his pay to $14.50 an hour – a decent living to support his family of five, he thought.

But as good as the job was for him, he believed it was one most Americans wouldn’t take.

“In the paper and on the talk shows, people complain about how we take jobs away from citizens,” Oscar said. “But this is the land of opportunity. People here are going to school and college, but not to pick apples or hang chickens or clean houses. Nobody wants the jobs we take to support our families. So who are we really taking them from?”

VIDEO: OSCAR'S STORY

CENTER EXPANDS

Even before the Northwest Detention Center opened its doors to a flood of illegal immigrants detained in the post-9/11 era, plans quietly had been hatched to expand it.

In public forums, discussions and correspondence, the proposed facility consistently was described as a 500-bed detention center. The federal contract awarded to the Correctional Services Corp. in 2002 stated the prison contractor was “responsible for acquiring and operating a facility which is capable of housing up to a total of 500 (estimated maximum) detainee aliens.”

But in March 2003 – about 17 months before the facility opened – Homeland Security and CSC officials agreed to a contract modification.

The amendment called on the prison contractor to “configure the facility to allow for future expansion of a possible increase of detainee population to up to 800.”

It wouldn’t take long for federal officials to seek the expansion. Nearly as soon as the detention center opened in April 2004, business was booming.

In its first month, the facility tallied 367 detainee book-ins. That proved to be its lowest monthly population count ever. From then on, book-ins soared, at times pushing near capacity.

By the end of 2004, after less than five months of operations, almost 3,300 detainees had been booked into the new detention center – over 1,000 more than the average annual intake at the INS’ old detention facility in Seattle.

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.

“DRO will exploit every opportunity presented in order to build the capacity to remove all removable aliens,” Endgame states.

By 2004, Congress had approved expanding America’s immigration detention capacity by 40,000 beds.

Heading into 2005 with its capacity at times straining, the Northwest Detention Center was prepared to get bigger. A change in ownership ushered in the facility’s rapid expansion.

OSCAR’S LEGAL TROUBLES

During his two decades in America, Oscar had his brushes with the law. He’d been arrested at least seven times from 1993 to 2010 for driving without a license or driving with a suspended one – all misdemeanor traffic offenses. But he also had garnered several more serious convictions.

He’d been busted twice for driving under the influence of alcohol in 2004 and 2005. During the first DUI, Oscar drove his pickup into a car parked at the Parkland Transit Center and tried to leave the scene.

Most of his legal troubles over the years were fueled by drinking, Oscar admits.

“That’s why I haven’t drank a drop in seven years,” he said.

His problems with driving drunk coincided with a stormy relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Maria-Guadalupe. The couple had crossed the border together as teenagers in 1991. They bore three children over the next seven years. Then in 1998, they finally were married.

But six years later, they’d separated and each had started seeing other people. Still, emotions between the two ran deep. Each accused the other of cheating and abusiveness. Meantime, financial hardships took a toll on the family. Oscar took a second job and his ex-wife worked 12-hour workdays on weekends to support the family.

In January 2005, Oscar, who’d been living with a friend, came to visit his children at the family’s apartment on South Hill. He and Maria-Guadalupe argued, then slipped into another room to get out of earshot of their kids. The encounter turned sexual at some point.

Maria-Guadalupe later told police Oscar had raped her. She didn’t scream for help, she said, because she didn’t want her kids worrying. Oscar disputed her account, contending they’d had consensual sex.

In a statement to police written in Spanish, his ex-wife maintained her rape accusation.

My husband came to my house and sexually violated me, the statement translates in English.

... I also want to clarify that for the moment I do not want to charge my husband, she wrote.

In an interview with police about a month later, Oscar claimed Maria-Guadalupe had pleaded for him to reconcile with her that night. She initially allowed him to have sex with her, he added, but then pushed him off during intercourse and started crying.

Police arrested Oscar for rape and assault. When he later agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault, the rape charge was dropped.

“I didn’t want to plead guilty,” Oscar said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.

“I could’ve filed charges against her for making that up, but I didn’t want to put my kids through all that.”

Oscar’s various legal troubles over the years had resulted in court-ordered fees, fines, counseling sessions, treatment programs and community service. He also served home detention, probation and jail sentences.

But during most of his brushes with the law, Oscar’s citizenship status never became an issue, he said. ICE officials say the agency put a detainer on Oscar while he was being held in 2005, but never took him into custody.

“Following his release from local custody he was not turned over to ICE,” agency spokesman Andrew Munoz said.

But the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department disputed that, and a booking record for Oscar from the time indicates no detainer.

“Immigration had never placed a hold on him,” Pierce County Det. Ed Troyer said. “There is no immigration hold at that time.”

Regardless, after a judge ordered Oscar released from the local jail on time served, he was free to go.

“I was lucky,” Oscar said. “My citizenship never came up.”

His luck would run out in April 2011.

UNDER NEW OWNERSHIP

Less than a year after opening the new Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, one of the nation’s largest private prison contractors prepared to sell it.

By July 2005, Correctional Services Corp. had agreed to sell all of its facilities and contracts to the global corrections goliath, The GEO Group.

GEO, a Florida-based company founded by former FBI agent George Wackenhut, took over CSC’s 15 adult correctional facilities nationwide by the end of 2005.

As part of the deal, GEO assumed control of the federal immigration detention contract in Tacoma, with about three-and-half years and $94 million of renewal options remaining.

The $62-million corporate buy-out coincided with the onset of rapid expansion at the Tacoma facility, which eventually would become one of the largest immigration detention and processing centers in the nation.

Within a month of new ownership in November 2005, the detention center’s capacity grew from 500 to 800 beds, and GEO cashed in on the growth.

Changes in the federal contract added a new payment tier that calculated daily payment rates for every immigrant detained above 500. In 2006, its first full year of operations, GEO reported $25.6 million in annual revenues from the facility – about 10 percent more than the $23.2 million reported by its predecessor a year earlier.  

The boom continued. By December 2006, GEO and Homeland Security officials agreed to expand the facility’s bed space capacity again – from 800 beds to 1,000. The added space helped GEO’s annual revenues for the Tacoma facility climb in 2007 to $31.8 million – 37 percent more than CSC’s best year in 2005.

In little more than a year, the Northwest Detention Center’s new owners had doubled detainee capacity by converting existing space for detention purposes.

The expansion meant that the facility primarily built to hold undocumented immigrants in Washington, Oregon and Alaska also could accommodate overflow detainees from facilities around the nation.

For GEO and the federal government, the timing was perfect. As Homeland Security’s “Endgame” continued to play out, the number of immigrants booked into federal detention centers nationwide skyrocketed.

National “book-ins” of immigrant detainees rose from more than 233,000 in 2005 to over 383,000 in 2009. Over the same span, undocumented immigrant book-ins in Tacoma doubled, climbing from about 6,500 to more than 13,000.

When the Endgame boom hit, GEO was poised to accommodate it.

By then, The GEO Group – a global security firm with $2.8 billion in annual revenues – had increased its American operations to 58 facilities with a combined capacity of 48,000 beds. Its seven immigration detention facilities with a combined 7,200 beds made the company ICE’s second largest private contractor.

GEO’s facility in Tacoma seemed only a small player, but it was a proven money-maker and GEO had big plans for it.

BOOKED AND DETAINED

The green sedan had just rolled through a stop sign at the bottom of a hill on the East Side, when Tacoma Police Officer Eric Barry began to follow it.

After street lamps illuminated a large crack in the middle of its windshield, Barry hit the lights on his cruiser, and the sedan pulled into a gas station.

It was 4:34 a.m. on Saturday, April 23, 2011.

By then, 37-year-old Oscar Campos Estrada had moved from the South Hill to East Tacoma to start a new family. He had lived in Pierce County for 20 years, raising three children with his longtime girlfriend and eventual wife, Maria-Guadalupe. After the couple split. Oscar and his new girlfriend, Maria, welcomed a boy, Jasiel, now 2.

Oscar had just left his new family and was on his way to work an overtime shift at a cabinet-making firm in Lakewood when the officer stopped him.

Oscar’s hands trembled as he gave Barry his state identification card.

Why are you shaking, Barry asked him.

“I’m not supposed to be driving because my license is suspended,” Oscar said.

Then why are you driving?

“I have to feed my family.”

Oscar was arrested and booked into the Pierce County Jail. A few days later, prosecutors charged him with driving while his license was suspended. The charge ultimately would land Oscar in jail for four months.

Oscar was still on probation for a first-degree suspended license conviction from 2010 at the time of Barry’s traffic stop.

For months, Oscar followed a court order not to drive, he said. Most days, he bicycled 12 miles from his family’s East Side apartment to his job in Lakewood. After work, he bicycled home.

That Saturday was the first time Oscar’s work had scheduled him for an overtime shift. At the time – between paying child support for his three older children and raising a toddler – Oscar could’ve used the extra cash. He agreed to work the shift.

A few days before the Saturday work shift, Jasiel took ill. The night before, Maria had stayed up all night tending to the sick boy. When the time came to go to work, Oscar opted to drive his brother’s car to his job instead of biking there.

“I was tired,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake up my girlfriend. I made a mistake.”

Three days after his arrest, federal ICE agents, who in recent years have become more active in screening local inmates, showed up at the Pierce County Jail to fingerprint and photograph Oscar. They also placed him under an immigration hold.

“Based on his immigration and criminal history, most notably his assault and driving under the influence convictions and his previous voluntary departure, (Enforcement and Removal Office) officers placed a detainer on him,” ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz said.

The designation meant that once Oscar completed his local jail sentence, he had a reservation at a sprawling correctional complex on Tacoma’s Tideflats.

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