A Washington lawmaker has introduced legislation in Congress aimed at improving conditions at federal immigration detention centers, which he said was prompted by a recent hunger strike at a Tacoma facility.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, visited the detention center on Tacoma’s Tideflats in March to speak with detainees saying afterward that his biggest concern was the lack of legislative standards for how such centers should be run.
“... it was clear that more enforceable standards were necessary,” said Smith, who lived in Northeast Tacoma before his district was redrawn northward and who still represents the area where the detention center sits.
His Accountability in Immigration Detention Act, introduced Monday, would change oversight of the detention centers, by creating a rule-making committee to make and regulate standards for the facilities. The committee would include immigrant advocates, as well as labor groups representing detention center employees.
Currently, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement creates and enforces such standards.
“Right now the facilities are audited by the same people – ICE – who put out the regulations,” Smith said in an interview with KUOW radio. “Unsurprisingly, ICE thinks ICE is doing an amazing job.”
ICE contracts with the GEO group, a private company, to run the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
GEO addressed its audit process in a March release.
“All of GEO’s residential facilities under direct contract with ICE are audited and inspected by the agency on a routine and unannounced basis. GEO’s facilities are also independently accredited by the American Correctional Association, which is widely recognized as the foremost independent detention accreditation agency in the United States.”
Smith’s bill would require unannounced audits.
Asked for a response to the legislation, regional ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz said the agency does not comment on pending or proposed legislation.
A statement from the agency about its detention policies said ICE’s 2011 detention standard “better addresses the needs of ICE’s unique detainee population by, among other things, improving medical and mental health care, maximizing access to counsel and legal resources, reinforcing protections against sexual abuse and assault, augmenting religious opportunities and enhancing procedures for reviewing and responding to detainee grievances.”
The series of hunger strikes at the Northwest Detention Center started March 7 with several hundred detainees at its peak, protesting deportations, the quality of food and working conditions, as well as other aspects of life at the Tacoma center.
Down to five strikers a couple days later, it wasn’t clear how many detainees were refusing meals or fasting when the strike renewed at different points after that. The group told supporters May 1 that it had ended the strike.
Smith solicited input from supporters for his bill, said Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with the coalition of interest groups that supported the strikers.
“It was shaped by the demands of the hunger strikers,” she said. “We’re really pleased with how the legislation is looking. We’re looking forward to having more cosponsors and it actually becoming law.”
She said supporters are particularly glad that the bill would prohibit retaliation against whistleblower detainees, such as through solitary confinement. Advocates have said detainees were isolated for taking part in the hunger strike, which ICE has denied.
“I’ve been doing this work for many years, and this is the first time that I don’t have to call a politician, they call me to say: ‘What’s happening, how can we help?’” she said. “When I was reading the draft, I was actually smiling. Usually, when I read policies, I’m very critical, because it’s not good enough. It made me smile.”
Still, she says it’s a first step toward supporters’ larger goal.
“What we would like is that in the future these detention centers don’t exist anymore, either run by government or private corporations,” she said. “We know it’s a lot to ask. This is already a great, great step.”
Smith lived in Northeast Tacoma before his district was redrawn northward. He still represents the area where the detention center sits.
Staff writer Kim Bradford contributed to this story.
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268