Detention center houses few serious criminals

The News Tribune and InvestigateWestSeptember 9, 2012 

Most illegal immigrants who end up behind the Northwest Detention Center’s razor wire are, at worst, petty criminals. Their stays at the lockup are but brief stops on the way out of the country.

On a walk-through last year of the low-slung complex on Tacoma’s Tideflats, federal immigration officials and a privately-employed warden explained how the hundreds of men and women dressed in color-coded uniforms wound up here.

About 1,000 of the roughly 1,300 adult detainees within its walls wear blue, they said, a classification that means they have little or no criminal history. Those in blue who do have rap sheets mostly committed minor offenses – traffic offenses and other misdemeanors that likely sent them to one of the hundreds of local jails in Washington, Oregon or Alaska where immigration officials later encountered them.

Another 200 immigrants, wearing orange, have committed more serious, “mid-level” crimes, such as drug-related offenses.

The rest of the population – a mostly unseen group of about 100 segregated detainees dressed in red – are criminals with serious convictions for sex offenses, assault, even homicide.

About 75 female detainees — all of whom don yellow uniforms, but wear colored wrist-bands that correspond with security classifications — are separately housed in living pods away from the men.

Detainees come from more than 70 nations, with Mexico by far the most common country of citizenship. Most wind up in Tacoma from three Northwest states served by the facility, but at least 165 detainees held at the Northwest Detention Center as of July were transferred from other “areas of responsibility.” They included 100 detainees from the San Antonio area, 33 from three different areas in California, 30 from the Phoenix area and one each from the Salt Lake City and New Orleans areas.

The bulk of detainees were brought here under the Criminal Alien Program, a federal plan that puts Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents into local jails and state prisons to screen recently booked inmates, officials said. When illegal immigrants are identified, they are processed for deportation rather than released to the general public.

“We’re responsible for public safety,” said Lorie Dankers last year, then an ICE spokeswoman. “We can put an immigration detainer on someone when they’re in criminal custody. As soon as they’re done (with their jail sentence), we pick them up as soon as we can and transport them here.”

In 2010, ICE announced new priorities to focus enforcement on unlawful immigrants who have criminal convictions, pose national security threats or are recent or repeated border-crossers.

The agency “is mandated by the Congress to enforce U.S. immigration law,” ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz said in a recent email. “Detaining certain illegal aliens in civil detention centers is a necessary function of that mandate.”

Recent changes to the detainee classification system at the Northwest Detention Center has created four security levels, Munoz added. Still, during a recent count in July, nearly 900 detainees — about 65 percent — were classified as low or medium-low security risks. Of those, 395 detainees had not committed a crime.

For many immigrant detainees — in Tacoma and nationwide — the most serious crimes that landed them into detention and facing deportation were traffic offenses, statistics show.

Detainees spend an average of about 36 days at the Tideflats center — about 10 days more than illegal immigrants stay on average in detention centers nationwide. Most detainees leave Tacoma with deportation orders, with the number of removals for the past four complete years ranging from a low of 56 percent in 2011 to a high of 73 percent in 2009.

As of last year, two removal flights departed each week from Boeing Field filled with detainees from the Tacoma center. The flights were typically bound for Harlingen, a small Texas city on the Gulf Coast about 40 minutes north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Deportees were then bused to the crossing at Brownsville, Dankers said. From there, they unloaded and walked back to Mexico — through Matamoros, a violent border town largely controlled by Mexican drug cartels.

As of last month, ICE had reduced removal flights from the Northwest region to one per week, with its point of touch-down dependant upon “the final destination of deportees,” Munoz said.

Last year’s detention center tour passed by the law library, where detainees crowded around computers to research cases. Across a corridor, immigrants waited their turn to sit in barber chairs and get haircuts from a buzzing electric razor. A medical clinic run by the United States Public Health Administration offers health and dental care, screens detainees for illness, and isolates those with potentially contagious diseases from the general population.

“It’s a state-of-the-art facility,” said Lowell Clark, warden of the detention center and an employee for its private owner, The GEO Group.

For most of the day, the majority of the center’s detainees are allowed to walk about freely, he added. “Of course, they’re not free to go anywhere all the time,” Clark said. “But it’s not a prison.”

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