Two months after attack ICE allows media inside detention center

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has a bad reputation and it knows it. That’s why the agency opened the Northwest ICE Processing Center to the news media on Tuesday.

“Nobody likes what we do here,” said Nathalie Asher, the Seattle field office director for the Enforcement and Removal Operations division of ICE. “Immigration is a very sensitive issue. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

News outlets from as far as Portland were on the tour, the first of its kind at the facility at 1600 E. J St. in Tacoma, officials said.

Formerly know as the Northwest Detention Center, the facility opened in 2004 on the Tideflats and is run by the private company The GEO Group.

The facility has a capacity of 1,575 adults. On Tuesday it held just over 1,300 men and women. No juveniles are housed there.

Asher conducted the tour. She oversees the facility from her Tukwila office.

She would not say how many ICE employees work at the facility, citing security concerns. ICE employees are not on site 24 hours a day. GEO staff are, however.

Asher has heard the accusations about the facility.

“That we are not a humane setting; that individuals here are not being treated well,” Asher said. She said Tuesday’s tour would show otherwise.

The facility was clean, orderly and brightly lit on Tuesday. It’s impossible to determine how much the tour affected the look and operation of the center. Asher insisted it was being run like it is any other day.

The facility is clearly not accustomed to media visitors. At one point, angry officials reprimanded ICE public information officers after photographers inadvertently filmed court proceedings.

Several times, Asher mentioned uncooperative local governments that have made her job more difficult. She was formerly able to fly ICE jets in and out of Boeing Field but now has to use an airport in Yakima and bus detainees over mountain passes.

“It’s the current political winds that are dictating the level of cooperation that will be allowed,” Asher said. She’s just upholding the law, she said.

Politics hit home on July 13 when Willem Van Spronsen attacked the Tacoma facility with Molotov cocktails. He was shot and killed by Tacoma police.

“I take that personally,” she said of the attack. “And the ongoing support thereafter (for Van Spronsen), who made that decision to come here and put this place up in flames, is unconscionable.”

The people inside

Media were allowed to inspect one housing wing. It was divided into four separate pods. One was filled with men in orange uniforms; another pod had men with dark blue uniforms.

The different colors represent different security levels and segregation. Some of the men are in gangs, Asher said, and must be kept separated.

On Tuesday, detainees played cards, talked on phones, ate meals and gazed back at the gawking media. Some exercised in small outdoor (opened roofs) areas.

Double bunks were arranged on the ground floor. Showers are located on upper levels.

Reporters were not allowed to interview detainees. Photographers were prohibited from showing detainees’ faces.

The majority of detainees seen by the media appeared to be Latino. Signs around the facility are in English and Spanish.

Thirty-one percent of the detainees are from Mexico, Asher said. Eleven percent come from India. Other top 10 countries include Bangladesh and Venezuela.

The facility has 65 nations represented at any one time. Translator services are available for them.

About 85 percent of the facility’s residents are male.

Asher said 65 percent of the detainees were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“For the last 18 months plus, there has been a huge influx of individuals coming across the border,” Asher said.

Only 40 percent of the detainees are criminal. They were arrested by ICE or are jail transfers — picked up by police agencies.

“Those jails that cooperate,” Asher said, again referencing the ongoing resistance to ICE.

Most of the men appeared well groomed on Tuesday. They are allowed one haircut a month, Asher said.

Most were young men. Occasionally, one would leap up to a bar and perform pull-ups.

Detainees are issued headphones. The group votes on TV programs.

Each pod has a phone bank. Detainees purchase phone cards to pay for calls.

Work and leisure

The media tour was conducted on a non-visiting day, but the press was allowed to view visiting areas. The stark rooms are classic prison-style: Glass separates detainees from visitors. They speak via phones.

Detainees can work in the laundry or kitchen for $1 a day. It’s not mandatory.

“There is no forced labor here,” Asher said.

According to menus provided by ICE, a recent breakfast included cereal, eggs, potatoes, salsa, tortilla, margarine, coffee, sugar and milk. A dinner was made up of a chicken leg quarter, Spanish rice, refried beans, salsa, shredded lettuce with dressing, tortilla, cake and a sugar-free beverage.

Detainees are given 3,000 calories a day. Dietitians plan meals that include halal and kosher. No pork is served in the facility.

Meal times are adjusted for Muslim detainees who observe Ramadan. Fasting occurs in daylight hours.

Meals are brought to the detainees in their pods. They are also allowed to buy extra food.

“Ramen noodles are a big hit,” Asher said.

Some detainees spend time in the facility’s law library.

“This is a pretty popular service,” Asher said. Detainees have access to online legal resources.

When they leave the facility, detainees are given CD-ROMs of documents they have collected.

The center has courtrooms and video teleconferencing facilities where immigration hearings and other legal matters are conducted.


Each newly arrived detainee is given uniforms, sweat shirt, sandals, shoes, socks, underwear, bedding, towels and hygiene products including comb, toothpaste, toothbrush. Examples were set out for the media to inspect.

Female detainees have an unlimited supply of feminine hygiene products.

A medical center is in the facility. Asher didn’t know staffing levels.

Detainees are given a full, voluntary medical check within 12 hours of arrival and a full physical within two weeks.

“We’re dealing with a population, most of whom have never had medical care in their lives,” Asher said.

Some detainees are given the first eye exam they’ve ever had, Asher said, standing near two red footprints where detainees stand to look at an eye chart.

“Individuals don’t even know they can’t see well,” she said of some detainees with poor eyesight.

If detainees need serious medical care, they are sent to local hospitals or other medical facilities.

“We see, often times, individuals coming in — they don’t even know they have a terminal illness until we diagnosis it for them,” Asher said. “And now that they are in our custody we are then responsible to provide them the care that they need.”

The processing center has nine beds that are used for detainees recuperating from surgeries or not ill enough to leave the facility.

Some of the beds are used to stabilize detainees who have mental health issues. They are being used more often now, Asher said.

“We had that (cooperative) relationship with mental health institutions and practices here in Washington State,” Asher said. “That is no longer. That is another place we’ve been disinvited.”

Now, detainees are sent as far as California or Florida for care, she said.

There are dental facilities and even a negative pressure room for patients who have communicable diseases.

Some detainees go into substance abuse withdrawal upon arrival. When that is detected, they are sent to an emergency room.

The top two medical conditions detainees are diagnosed with are diabetes and hypertension, she said.

The average length of stay for a detainee is 73 days, down from 77 days a year ago, Asher said.

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.