GEO expected to get new contract to run Tacoma immigrant detention center

A new agreement to run a federal immigration facility in the Northwest will take effect next month, and the GEO Group is expected to get the contract to keep operating its detention center on the Tacoma Tideflats.

The federal government hasn’t announced which business will get the contract, and it doesn’t expect to by Wednesday, when the new agreement was supposed to begin.

“Contract negotiations remain ongoing and will not be concluded before our original anticipated contract start date of April 1,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Andrew Munoz said in a statement Monday.

The GEO Group will run the Northwest Detention Center, the current contract-owned/contract-operated facility, under a previous agreement that has been extended through April 23, Munoz said.

A company bidding on the new contract would need to own and operate a facility capable of housing 1,575 people whose immigration status is being challenged by federal authorities. GEO, which has run the Tideflats detention center since 2005, is thought to be one of the few companies with a Northwest facility capable of fitting the bill. Changing course would mean moving hundreds of detainees to another location.

“Whenever these things have come up for renewal, it’s always kind of curious,” said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants. “Is someone actually going to try to build a different facility? It seems almost like a given that GEO will be the entity picked.”

GEO declined to discuss contract-related matters or to confirm it has placed a bid.

“It would be shocking to me if they don’t,” Baron said. “They’ve been making money from the detention center for more than a decade now.”

Baron said he opposes a private business running the facility and would prefer it didn’t exist in the first place.

When asked how many proposals it had received for the new agreement, ICE said that information would have to be requested through a Freedom of Information Act request. The News Tribune submitted the request but has not yet received the information.

GEO took ownership of the detention center in 2005, the year after it opened.

The last time the contract went out for bid was in 2009, and GEO won the bid. Its agreement with the government has been extended on a regular basis since then.

The new contract is expected to be for a one-year period, with a chance to renew annually for nine more years, according to ICE’s request for proposal.

ICE will guarantee compensation for a minimum of 800 detainees a day, according to the request for proposal. It was unclear how much the government is willing to pay per detainee.

In the 2009 contract, GEO was guaranteed 1,181 detainees a day, and $100.65 daily for each. The government agreed to pay $62.52 daily for each detainee above the minimum.

It’s hard to say what that amounted to annually for the company. The population of the center fluctuates fairly dramatically. January brought an average daily population of 818 detainees, compared to 1,446 in January 2014.

Part of GEO’s contractual obligation was to enter into a memorandum of understanding about how Tacoma’s emergency services and the GEO facility would work together in the event of a disaster. The building sits in Mount Rainier’s lahar path.

Such a memorandum was finalized in May, about a decade after the facility opened.

According to ICE, the years without a memorandum didn’t affect safety. Tacoma Fire has done drills with facility, and GEO and ICE were in contact with police and fire officials, ICE said.

The memorandum addresses how the city and GEO would approach emergencies such as fires, civil disturbance, mass casualties, and work strikes, among others.

Detainees at the center went on hunger strikes throughout 2014, protesting the living conditions and $1-a-day wages at the facility for detainees who choose to work. They also refused meals to protest deportations and national immigration policy.

“GEO’s immigration facilities, including the Northwest Detention Center, provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary,” GEO said in a statement issued during the hunger strikes.