I remember my reaction after touring the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma a couple of years ago.
Holy cow. I had no idea.
A member of our editorial board had arranged the field trip to better acquaint us with this relatively new institution. In truth, The News Tribune had provided little coverage of it over the years.
But there it is, a massive building in the middle of the Tideflats in which thousands of people are detained and from which thousands are deported each year. If you think the immigration debate is playing out only in California or Texas, you’re wrong. Tacoma’s center is the fourth-largest immigration detention facility in the country.
Our series of stories that starts on today’s front page is intended neither as an endorsement nor an indictment of the detention center or federal immigration policy. We want to catch you up on how the center came to Tacoma, how it quickly grew to its current size and how federal policy is playing out here.
The News Tribune’s first story indicating Tacoma might be selected for the NWDC ran on the front page Dec. 3, 1999. We ran a story in January 2000 saying the Immigration and Naturalization Service was focused on two sites in the Tideflats. On March 28, 2000, a story on our local news cover said the Tacoma City Council might support the deal at its meeting that night. The next day, we ran a brief on Page B2 saying the endorsement passed the council unanimously.
Since then, occasional stories have covered concerns by local officials or activists, a flap over security guards being hired without background checks and stories about individual detainees. When the NWDC opened in 2004, our reporter took readers inside the shiny new facility. In 2008, we wrote that the center was expanding to 1,500 beds.
Our “Center of Detention” series required two years of investigative work. It is the result of dozens of interviews and thousands of documents. It is not a “gotcha” story, although it raises a number of concerns. It is meant to explain.
In the early planning, we decided to go beyond the administrative side of the story. We also wanted to tell the human side. We believed following a single person was the best way to explain how the process works and who the detainees are.
We selected Oscar Campos Estrada for a number of reasons.
• He and his family are local. We had opportunities to follow others, but we wanted someone from Tacoma or Pierce County.
• We found him early enough in his detention process – at the Pierce County Jail – that we could follow him through his subsequent time at the NWDC. Reporters were not allowed to talk to NWDC detainees on their tour. And even with Oscar’s permission, we were not allowed to sit in on his family visitations or his meetings with his attorney.
• As far as we can tell, Oscar was a pretty average detainee at the NWDC. He was born in Mexico. He’s lived here a long time. He was convicted of a few small crimes but no major ones.
Some readers will feel little sympathy for Oscar. He broke the law when he snuck across the border. He broke it again when he bought a Social Security card, and yet again when he drove drunk and without a license. It is because of his actions that his family is suffering.
But through Oscar, we learn about the local immigrant underground that helps a person survive here illegally for decades. And we begin to understand the rewards of illegal immigration that compel a person to risk breaking the law to come here.
In Oscar’s case, all of his kids are American; one even attends college here. And Oscar earns 100 times the pay here that he would earn in Mexico. In fact, Oscar’s family is in much better circumstances today because he did those things.
Love him or hate him, Oscar is the face of the illegal immigrant living here and being detained in Tacoma.
If you’d like to talk more about Oscar or the NWDC, reporter Lewis Kamb will conduct an online chat at noon Wednesday. You can go to thenewstribune.com that day and enter your questions for him.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
If you didn’t see our Jon Kitna story Friday, you might want to fish your Sports section out of the recycle bin. Or go online to tinyurl.com/jonkitna.
Columnist John McGrath and photographer Lui Kit Wong produced a wonderful story package about the former NFL player’s first week as coach of the Lincoln Abes football team.
Yes, the local newspaper should hold government entities accountable to the people. The local newspaper also should tell stories about the inspiring people who live among us, and these two journalists on Friday did just firstname.lastname@example.org