Matt Driscoll

Tacoma leaders look to Congress for help monitoring NWDC. They should look in the mirror, too

Northwest Detention Center blocked from expanding

In this 2018 file video, the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board upheld regulations that prevent the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma from adding immigration detention beds. The GEO Group, which runs the facility, challenged the regulations.
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In this 2018 file video, the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board upheld regulations that prevent the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma from adding immigration detention beds. The GEO Group, which runs the facility, challenged the regulations.

Sending letters is good.

When it comes to the for-profit Northwest Detention Center, however, action is better.

The Tacoma City Council took a step toward the former this week, with Mayor Victoria Woodards providing a draft copy of a strongly worded letter she encouraged her council colleagues to sign on to. Presumably — after the city’s Commission on Immigrant and Refugees Affairs has a chance to weigh in — it will mailed off to members of Congress in Washington D.C.

The letter — which references “breaches of health, safety, civil rights and human dignity in the detention center” — is essentially a plea for help from people with more power than the City Council wields on the matter.

Most pointedly, it asks for the introduction or reintroduction of federal legislation “eliminating the profit motive to detain people; restoring due process to custody decisions; increasing oversight, accountability, and transparency; and establishing real alternatives to detention.”

All of the above is sorely needed at the NWDC and at immigration detention centers across the country. The next step should be working to make it happen, though given the partisan dysfunction in D.C., the odds seem long.

For Tacoma and its elected leaders, there’s also the fact that letters simply aren’t enough.

As the letter correctly states, “The treatment of immigrants and those seeking asylum or other sanctuary in our country is one of the critical issues of our time.”

That’s true and precisely why the approach Tacoma’s council has historically taken in regard to the NWDC — essentially falling back on the comfortable assumption that there’s nothing local electeds can do — needs a Trump era update.

So what, exactly, can the Tacoma City Council do?

At Tuesday’s council study session, Councilman Conor McCarthy provided a good starting point.

“I think we all acknowledge we can’t change federal legislation, but we certainly can do everything within our power to advocate to those who can to really change policy,” McCarthy started by saying, acknowledging the city’s limited purview.

While reasonable people (and perhaps more importantly, lawyers) can disagree about how much power the council has here, it’s a fair point.

Then McCarthy got to a more important one.

“But one thing that I think is unequivocal, and I think we’d all agree with, is that we have a duty as leaders of our community to make sure the individuals detained at the facility are treated properly,” McCarthy said. “The only way we’re really going to change the status quo is to exert some sort of process where we can credibly verify how individuals are treated at this facility.”

“I’m not so sure how we can do that,” he added, “but I think that’s important.”

It certainly is.

All options need to be considered, whether that involves partnering with Washington’s congressional delegation or working harder to ensure legal representation or leveraging the power that the council has in business licensing when it comes to protecting health and welfare.

The cold truth is that closing the NWDC is a pipe dream right now. Without meaningful changes in federal immigration policy, shuttering the facility likely would do little more than make Tacoma feel better about its part in a cruel and unjust system. It also has the potential to make the lives of those detained worse.

But making sure people detained at the NWDC are treated with dignity and humanity? Making sure they’re fed well and have access to quality health care? Taking more substantial strides to make sure they have capable legal representation?

Many of these things we can do, right here, right now, without deferring to Congress.

Saiyare Refaei is the coordinator for sustainability integration at Pacific Lutheran University and a member of Tacoma’s 12-person Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. She also chairs the commission’s committee on the NWDC.

I reached out to Refaei this week to get her perspective. I wanted to know what she would like to see the City Council do and how much further she thinks it can and should go when it comes to ensuring that people detained at the facility are being treated fairly.

As of press time, the full Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs had not had a chance to review the City Council’s NWDC letter, and Refaei said she could not speak on behalf of the full commission.

Bu her remarks made clear that people want action, not more promises and platitudes.

“I think what I’m hearing a lot from community members ... is they want to see the city take some real business strategy approaches to having accountability for what they know firsthand is happening inside this facility, based on the accounts of the people that are being detained,” Refaei said. “I think having a few folks at the table (on the City Council) who do seem to care and voice their concern, that makes me hopeful. Whether or not action is taken is where my hesitation still lies.”

“I think for me, personally, it’s really important that our City Council is taking a stance on these issues,” Refaei continued. “I think what our community is really trying to advocate for are some actual practical steps moving forward. Because there’s only so long that we can keep talking about an issue.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.