Northwest Detention Center sues Tacoma over council's move to restrict expansion

Exterior of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma
Exterior of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma

The private company that runs the immigration detention center on Tacoma's Tideflats is suing over an ordinance the City Council passed that makes it almost impossible for the detention center to expand.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, the GEO Group claimed that the ordinance "purports to restrict the current use" of its property in Tacoma. The GEO Group runs the detention center, which holds 1,575 detainees, on behalf of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

The lawsuit claims that the city tried to use its ordinance to prevent the detention center from expanding because the council has political objections to the aggressive immigration policies of President Donald Trump, who has directed an increase in round-ups and deportations of people living here illegally.

"While the subject ordinance purports to be a land use control ordinance, the circumstances surrounding its adoption clearly indicate that the city intended to restrict the future operation and expansion of (the Northwest Detention Center) in an attempt to hamper ICE's ability to carry out core federal functions related to immigration," the lawsuit states.

A deputy city attorney said in a statement the ordinance was meant to protect economically valuable land in the port of Tacoma from encroachment by non-industrial uses, including detention and correctional facilities.

"In the challenged legislation, the city allows the GEO Group's existing location to remain in operation, but limits future expansion in the Port Maritime Industrial Zone. In the future, any similar facilities must be located in less economically sensitive zoning," Steve Victor said in the statement.

"At this time we are still reviewing and assessing GEO Group’s specific claims, but maintain that the zoning and regulatory changes at issue are a lawful exercise of the city's authority."

The City Council began looking at ways to limit the expansion of the detention center in early 2017, soon after Trump took office. In March 2017, the council voted to severely limit where new public correctional facilities could be sited and voted to ban new or expanded private correctional facilities across the city. That was meant to include the Northwest Detention Center, the only private detention facility in Tacoma.

Two months later the council voted to roll back its ban on private facilities on the advice of city legal staff. Because the detention center is considered an essential public facility under the state's Growth Management Act, the city cannot ban it outright, despite the council's stated discomfort with having it in Tacoma.

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But those interim regulations were set to expire this month. When the City Council took up the issue again last month, it had three new council members and a new mayor.

The ordinance the council passed Feb. 20 creates a new, distinct definition and use category for detention facilities, limits severely where they can be sited and requires a strenuous permitting process known as a conditional-use permit for new correctional or detention facilities — or for significant modifications to existing ones.

The Northwest Detention Center now is considered a nonconforming use, and any expansions that would increase its capacity would be processed as "major modifications" under the city code, the lawsuit says.

In the suit, the GEO Group also cites the city's early enthusiasm for having the facility located in Tacoma when it was first proposed in 2000. The detention center, the only such dedicated facility in the state, opened in 2004 with approval and support from council members at the time, the lawsuit states.

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"While city staff and officials may not agree with the federal government's current implementation of immigration policies, its attempt to disrupt these critical federal functions through land use regulations is beyond the city's land use regulatory authority," it reads.

GEO says the city ordinance limits and burdens its present ability to expand by making it a legal nonconforming use, "and subjecting it to city code provisions favoring phasing out or amortization of nonconforming uses," which it says could potentially interfere with its contractual obligations with the federal government.

GEO said in a statement that while the company never takes a position on issues related to immigration enforcement, "It is important to understand that banning a privately-operated immigration center in Tacoma will not stop or change federal immigration policies.

"In the absence of this legally authorized special purpose facility, individuals going through the immigration review process would likely be transferred to local jails, which do not meet the federal government’s performance-based national detention standards, with which we comply, and are often located out-of-state."

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud