During his election campaign, Donald Trump stoked fears of out-of-control immigrant criminals and vowed to detain and deport a large number of unauthorized border crossers. The president’s actions in the past several weeks prove he plans to make good on that promise.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer recently said the president wants to “take the shackles off” Immigration and Customs Enforcement and add 15,000 officers to their ranks. Trump also wants to expand the role of local law enforcement to act as federal agents, essentially eliminating President Barack Obama’s orders to protect immigrants who haven’t committed further criminal acts.
For a moment, put aside constitutional concerns about Trump’s recent orders, such as whether they violate the 14th Amendment, and the abject fear and anger they’ve instilled. Focus instead on logistics: Who’s going to absorb this new, huge, systemic demand for mass detention and deportation?
And that, Tacoma, is where we come in.
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Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center is one of the nation’s largest privately owned and operated detention centers. The 1,564-bed facility on the Tideflats, which has expanded more than once, is just one of 64 for-profit correctional facilities in the U.S. owned and operated by the GEO Group. According to GEO estimates, the Tacoma facility generates a revenue of nearly $57 million annually.
To which we say: Enough.
It’s not atypical for government entities to contract with private prisons to expand bed capacity. Private prisons house approximately 12 percent of the general prison population and more than two-thirds of illegal immigrants in detention.
But here’s where it gets crass: The federal government and the private prison industry have a business model that entails a “bed mandate,” which means companies like GEO are guaranteed a number of detainees.
Though no specific plans have emerged for expanding the Tacoma facility, public officials are alert to the possibility.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland told News Tribune reporter Alexis Krell that the federal government would find it easier to expand a detention facility someplace more amenable than Tacoma. But considering one of the largest private detention facilities already exists in our fair city, it might appear Tacoma is already amenable.
Sure, activists make frequent pilgrimages to the Tacoma Tideflats to stage protests, and their numbers have grown since the president’s executive orders were issued in January. But anyone who believes protesters will deter the federal government and its private partners ought to take a road trip to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, where thousands of activists were no match for the oil industry.
Since the detention center moved here from Seattle in 2004, the private lockup has tripled in size. In 2008, the last time it grew, it added 500 beds as part of a 105,000-square-foot expansion. The City Council at the time was advised its hands were tied; the city attorney said expansion was unstoppable because the center was an “essential public facility,” like local jails or state prisons.
Fast forward to 2017 and Deputy City Attorney Jeff Capell now tells the TNT the center does not meet the definition of “essential public facility,” a term that’s open to interpretation and may find its final debate in court.
Capell says the feds could house detainees anywhere. “It doesn’t have to be here.”
That is sound logic and a position worth fighting for.
Let’s be clear: It’s a criminal act to enter a country without permission or to violate a visa by extending a stay. Immigration reform should top any administration’s priority list. But when there is a financial motive attached to immigrant detention, advocacy groups and human rights organizations are right to raise some red flags.
The recent immigration crackdown, and Trump’s request for an extra $200 billion to catch some “bad hombres,” gives us reason to believe the U.S. is headed for a new prison boom. It need not happen in our backyard.
Unlike neighbors Seattle and Olympia, Tacoma chose not to call itself a sanctuary city, a label that comes with a consequence: Trump has threatened to take federal dollars away from any city refusing to follow his executive orders.
Tacoma’s reluctance was fiscally prudent; as Strickland said, Tacoma cannot afford to lose roughly $85 million in annual federal funding. Instead, the mayor likes to emphasize that Tacoma is a “welcoming city” for immigrants of all backgrounds.
Here’s hoping Tacoma does not lay out the welcome mat for GEO Group to expand and further profit in our city.