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Tacoma approves interim rule to block expansion of immigration detention center

The Northwest Detention Center, a privately owned and operated immigration detention center, was built on the Tacoma Tideflats to replace a similar facility in Seattle. The NWDC, which opened in 2004 with a 500-bed capacity, has since expanded capacity three times to 1,575 beds, making it one of the largest immigration detention centers in the U.S. This photo was taken in spring 2012.
The Northwest Detention Center, a privately owned and operated immigration detention center, was built on the Tacoma Tideflats to replace a similar facility in Seattle. The NWDC, which opened in 2004 with a 500-bed capacity, has since expanded capacity three times to 1,575 beds, making it one of the largest immigration detention centers in the U.S. This photo was taken in spring 2012. Staff file, 2012

The Tacoma City Council has taken another step to express its disapproval of the federal immigration detention center located in the Tideflats.

The council voted Tuesday to drastically limit where public correctional facilities can be sited within city limits, and to ban new or expanded private correctional facilities across the city.

Councilman Marty Campbell introduced the last-minute addition to the council agenda at the end of Tuesday’s study session. It was presented as an emergency ordinance, and as such came to a vote the same day.

Campbell said he did that because there is no council meeting next week, and he’ll be absent the following week. Councilman Joe Lonergan wanted to strike the emergency aspect of the ordinance so it would be revisited for a vote at a later meeting, but that amendment failed.

The ordinance creates a temporary regulation that targets future expansion at the Northwest Detention Center, a privately owned and operated federal immigration detention center that opened in 2004 on the Tideflats. It was expanded in 2008, and is currently permitted to accommodate up to 1,575 detainees.

The ordinance reads, in part, “recent changes in the national political climate have contributed to uncertainty as to the need for, and potential expansion of correctional facilities in communities such as Tacoma … the federal Department of Homeland Security is on record stating its desire to increase and secure additional detention facilities.”

GEO Group, which operates the detention center, has not announced plans to expand the facility. Planning staff reported Tuesday there are no requests for new or expanded correctional facilities from the public or private sector, acting city attorney Bill Fosbre said.

But some critics of the detention center have expressed concern that it will have to expand in the wake of President Donald Trump’s sweeping plan to aggressively deport those in the country illegally.

In recent weeks, Mayor Marilyn Strickland and members of the City Council have repeatedly expressed their disapproval with having the federal detention center in Tacoma’s backyard. The group has reaffirmed its commitment to being a welcoming city for immigrants and refugees, but has not adopted a sanctuary city status — in part, the mayor says, because the city can’t claim to be a haven while it’s hosting one of the country’s largest immigration detention centers.

Strickland sent a letter to the GEO Group in late February expressing concern that the facility was possibly holding detainees “in violation of due process rights,” a reference to Daniel Ramirez Medina, who is suing the federal government over his detention at the Tacoma facility. He was brought illegally into the United States as a child, but given a work permit under President Barack Obama’s administration.

The mayor’s letter noted that the city’s finance director has the power to suspend or revoke any business license if the business is found to be violating local, state or federal law regarding public health or safety.

Given the fact that these are unpredictable times, I think it makes sense for us to have things in place that allow us to control our destiny and not have our destiny done to us.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland

In the letter, Strickland requested a copy of GEO Group’s policies for accepting and detaining individuals, and an executed certificate of compliance. The city quickly received a written reply, Fosbre said, and was sent the certificate of compliance and other documents it requested earlier this week.

A GEO Group vice president said in an email Wednesday the company is looking forward to meeting with city and local leaders to “dispel the misinformation about our company. Contrary to certain misconceptions, our company has never taken a position on or advocated for or against any specific immigration policies. All such decisions and determinations are made entirely by the federal government.”

GEO Group has come under fire for its subsidiary’s $225,000 contribution to the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now during the presidential campaign. That contribution has prompted a complaint to the Federal Election Commission, accusing GEO of violating a 75-year-old ban that prohibits companies with federal contracts from making political contributions.

The company also is facing a class-action lawsuit claiming it violated anti-slavery laws by forcing tens of thousands of detainees to work for $1 day, or for nothing at all.

The company vice president said Wednesday the company is proud of its record.

“Our facilities, including the Tacoma facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services pursuant to the federal government’s national performance based standards as well as guidelines set by leading, independent accreditation entities,” wrote Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations. “We are proud of our historically strong performance record as a service provider helping meet the government’s needs while treating our residents with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

The city ordinance passed Tuesday put in place interim regulations for public and private correctional facilities, which will be in effect for six months, or until the city’s zoning regulations for those types of uses are permanently updated.

Under the regulations, private correctional facilities are prohibited across all zoning districts, and public or private correctional facilities are not allowed in the city’s multifamily and light industrial zoning districts. Public correctional facilities also face a new hurdle by having to get conditional use permits to locate in any district where they’re allowed.

The ordinance applies to new facilities and expansion of current facilities while the rule is in place, Fosbre said. Current uses would be grandfathered.

“This is a conversation about land use, this is a conversation about land that is scarce,” Strickland said at the council’s study session. “It’s an opportunity for us to very thoughtfully plan what happens in our city, and I think it applies in actually many places around the city, not just one in particular.

“And I think given the fact that these are unpredictable times, I think it makes sense for us to have things in place that allow us to control our destiny and not have our destiny done to us.”

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

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