No friends or family were there last week to meet more than a dozen people released from Tacoma’s federal immigration detention center.
But that didn’t mean the former detainees were on their own.
Waiting for them was a 36-foot-long motor home that has begun functioning as a welcome mobile.
“Can I make a call?” one man asked in Spanish as he sat on the RV couch.
“Absolutely,” volunteer Peggy Herman said, handing him a cellphone.
Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest, a nonprofit organization that helps coordinate resources for detainees, opened its Post-Detention Welcome Center on Wednesday and will staff it from 3-6 p.m. on weekdays.
The RV sits outside the release gate at the Northwest Detention Center on the Tacoma Tideflats.
In addition to phone access, it has food, beverages, toiletries, maps of the area, bus cards and people willing to help.
“People get transferred to the detention center sometimes straight from the border or from different states,” said Esmeralda Santos, Catholic chaplain at the detention center who helped with the RV project. “They don’t have any family here in Washington.
“The welcome center is very important as far as guiding them and pointing them in the right direction.”
The center is available as well to loved ones waiting for detainees to be released.
The group sometimes helps with temporary housing or with rides to a bus station or the airport. Sometimes what’s needed is a backpack to better carry personal belongings and legal paperwork detainees get in a plastic bag before their release.
Freed after five months in detention, Manuel Mesias Guillen Jimenez made plans from the RV sofa to travel by bus to Pennsylvania, where a sibling-in-law lives.
The 26-year-old is from Ecuador and has no family nearby, he said.
“It’s helpful for everyone that doesn’t know the area,” he said in Spanish about the Welcome Center. “Everyone that leaves detention needs something like this.”
A man from India waited in the motor home for a ride to arrive from the Sikh Temple in Renton. Another man, from El Salvador, planned by phone to travel to Phoenix, where a brother and uncle live.
Candelario Lopez, 19, also from El Salvador, used the RV cellphone to arrange a flight to Maryland, where his sister lives.
Asked what would have happened without the welcome center, he said simply in Spanish: “Lots of problems.”
Guards at the detention center have started telling detainees about the RV before their release, Lopez and others said.
Before, detainees would have had to either know to call AID Northwest before getting out or luck into finding a volunteer outside.
“If they know, we help them,” said Herman, an immigration attorney. “But that’s what we started to realize, is that too many people don’t know.”
A total of 16 detainees stopped by the first two days the center was open.
“With this increased demand, it’s going to be a challenge,” Herman said.
Starting the center put roughly a $25,000 dent in the organization’s budget, but Herman said she believes the project is sustainable.
The motor home can legally be parked outside the detention center five days a week. And on weekends, a nearby business has agreed to let the group park in its lot.
If needed, when it’s time to fill the water tank or empty the sewage container, Dash Point State Park is a short drive away.
They hope to have three or four volunteers staff the center at a time, including at least one who speaks Spanish, though bilingual speakers of any variety will be appreciated.
And at least one person will be versed in which sorts of paperwork and government agencies the former detainees should be considering, such as for getting a work permit.
“Someone to provide that kind of basic information about next steps for them,” Herman said.
For more information
To volunteer or donate to help the Post-Detention Welcome Center, go to aidnw.org.
Donations of backpacks with items such as granola bars and beverages are also needed. They’re given to detainees to help during sometimes long trips to reach family, AID Northwest said.