Whether public officials like it or not, Tacoma finds itself smack dab in the middle of the ongoing debate over federal immigration policy.
That’s what happens when a controversial private, for-profit facility like the Northwest Detention Center operates in your backyard.
Over the last month, protests have become a regular occurrence outside the NWDC. Arrests have been made. Fences have been erected. Tempers have flared. And the city’s response, like forcing protesters to remove tents and other structures — which many, including this columnist, believe do more to silence protesters than support immigrants and their families — have been called into question.
Predictably, frustrations have spilled into City Council chambers. Last week, dozens of activists descended on City Hall, demanding everything from answers about why a fence was put up to the revocation of the NWDC’s business license.
Recently I sat down with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards to have a candid conversation about the situation.
The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What can you tell me about the recent decision to allow certain structures for protesters at the NWDC? That seems like a shift.
VW: We want to do everything we can so people can express their First Amendment right. We want to make it as easy for them to do that as possible, and as safely as possible.
(City Manager Elizabeth Pauli) looked into it, and (allowing the structures) seemed like something we could legally do, and so we did.
Q: Did something in particular influence the decision?
VW: I think it’s just ongoing conversations and continuing to hear from people.
Obviously, Citizens Forum (on July 10) was not the first time we heard about this. We’ve gotten tons of emails and phone calls. It just pushes us to continue to look at different ways to be able to accommodate people who want to protest.
Q: To some, the move felt fairly minimal, to put it generously. What message do you think it sends, and what do you think it will accomplish?
VW: So, you said minimal, and I think what I am continuously curious about is what do people think we can do? We don’t have a whole lot of tools in our toolbox to do things differently.
I’m not necessarily hoping it sends a message. We’re trying to find every way can to make it easier (to protest), and we found out this is something we can do — so let’s do it. And maybe we’ll find other things.
Q: In your opinion, what power does the city have to shut down or restrict the NWDC?
VW: As a municipal government, we have the responsibility of applying the same standards in a fair and equitable manner to all businesses. This means that we cannot revoke a business license unless a business is failing to meet the standards outlined in the City’s Municipal Code.
The city has a variety of codes under which it may close a business down. For example, if there are significant enough building violations at a business, the city may close down the business, at least until the violations are fixed.
The city also has business license regulations, which allow the City in certain circumstances, to close a business.
As I mentioned during the last Council meeting, I am glad that people are speaking out and raising hard questions before us as a City Council. We have asked City staff to continue looking into these issues.
Q: Do any of those scenarios potentially apply to the NWDC?
VW: I can tell you this. We have in the past gone through that checklist. The former mayor and City Manager Elizabeth Pauli did it last year.
It doesn’t hurt if we go through that checklist again. We could do that.
Now, if we were to be notified by an agency responsible for health and welfare, and they evaluated (the NWDC) through a health-and-welfare lens and found there to be a violation, then we could look into those violations.
Q: There’s been criticism of the city’s response to protesters. There’s a sentiment that Tacoma should be supporting protests of current immigration policy and the NWDC, not making protesting more difficult, especially as a “Welcoming City.” What is your reaction to this?
VW: I can tell you from Citizens Forum on Tuesday night that sometimes it can get a little frustrating, because it’s hard to educate people. People believe what they believe.
I understand the frustration, but I also know that we can’t pick and choose who we take care of in our city. We have to take care of private businesses just like we have to take care of our community members.
I think that what we’ve done so far — although people aren’t very happy about it — is the best we can do.
Q: Can you explain the decision to erect a fence near the NWDC? Was is a move intended to dissuade protesters?
VW: Absolutely not.
BNSF and our Police Department were having conversations about people being on the tracks. Even at night, they were banging on the tracks. We asked (BNSF) to take care of it themselves, but they couldn’t get a fence up soon enough.
What (BNSF) wanted us to do was to trespass people off their property, which is by law what we have to do.
So we said, ‘You know what, we’ll pay for the fence, because trespassing means we have to arrest people, and we don’t want to do that.’ So we put up the fence.
We just wanted to keep people safe, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
Q: A recent story from CNN told the story of a 40-year-old mother detained at the NWDC. According to court filings, the mother has been placed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. What is your reaction when you read stories like that?
VW: You know I can be a little emotional. That angers me.
It makes me angry, and it makes me incredibly sad.
Our federal government needs to be held accountable. If we had control over the facility, we would be singing a completely different tune. But we don’t.
Q: How do you personally feel about having a privately run, for-profit detention center in Tacoma?
VW: I wish it were public so we had more control. I’m not a fan of the GEO Group. But I wish we had more control over what was happening inside.
I’m torn about having it here, because of the way we can help people when they’re out. I think what I want to focus on is, again, the federal level. How do we get rid of ICE, so this doesn’t happen?
Q: Have you and your fellow council members heard and felt the growing objections to federal immigration policy and the NWDC? Is it having an impact?
I think, again, it’s so frustrating to have no power but to be held responsible. We feel like our hands are tied.
I think (the public outcry) has a huge effect, and we’re asking all kinds of questions and trying to think out of the box about ways that we can help.
We’re going to continue to look at any way we can to at least let people express their First Amendment right, and what we can do to make sure that the people who are in there are treated fairly. And, more than that, that ICE goes away.
It’s a tough one.