Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Must we have 10 more years of immigrant detention on the Tideflats?

Detainees, shown in 2010, are kept in cells and a common area at the Northwest Detention Center. People waiting for their immigration status to be determined or those who are awaiting repatriation are housed there.
Detainees, shown in 2010, are kept in cells and a common area at the Northwest Detention Center. People waiting for their immigration status to be determined or those who are awaiting repatriation are housed there. Staff file, 2010

Will the GEO Group be detaining people caught on the wrong side of our country’s misguided immigration policy at the Northwest Detention Center for the next decade?

That possibility is the sobering takeaway from news this week that a new 9  1/2 -year contract was recently reached between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the private prison company out of Boca Raton, Florida.

GEO bills itself as “the world’s leading provider in the delivery of diversified correctional, detention, and residential treatment services to government agencies around the globe.”

And business in Tacoma is good. ICE officials announced the contract, which will be up for renewal each year, as a $700 million pact, provided it runs its full course.

All of this detaining and moneymaking will happen in our backyard.

The center’s average daily population was roughly 1,000 in March, the most recent month for which figures are available, The News Tribune’s Alexis Krell reported.

As Tacomans, the question is: Do we care?

I mean, really care?

With the previous deal set to expire, ICE put the contract up for bid late last year. And though contract negotiations with GEO were drawn out, and involved two temporary extensions, the fact that the company that has operated the Northwest Detention Center since 2005 won came as little surprise.

After all, awarding the contract to another private prison company likely would have meant moving the Northwest Detention Center’s detainees to another facility.

Considering the investments made over the years to turn the 1,575 bed Northwest Detention Center into one of the most massive immigration detention centers in the country — not to mention the pains taken by former city council members to help bring it here — a different outcome was unlikely, to put it mildly.

“Not a big surprise,” Jorge Baron, director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle told me when I asked about the new contract. “I’m always wondering, who else is going to do it? I mean, they already have this big facility there. … (Contract negotiations) just seem like a pretense.”

In other words, 11 years after the Northwest Detention Center opened, detaining immigrants on the Tideflats — on the site of a former meat packing plant, and smack dab in the middle of Mount Rainier’s potential lahar path — has become business as usual in Tacoma.

I’m not the only person who takes issue with the for-profit detainment of those whose immigration status is being challenged by the federal government, justly or unjustly. In September, roughly 60 protesters gathered outside the detention center in an effort to stop deportations from the facility. And in May, tempers flared over allegations of abuse at the hands of detention center guards. All of this came on the heels of well-documented hunger strikes at the facility in 2014.

Still, for most of Tacoma, it feels like what happens on the Tideflats is conveniently out of sight, out of mind.

“I do presentations in Tacoma all the time, and people don’t even know we have the fourth largest immigration detention center in the country in our backyard,” Baron tells me. “It’s this hidden thing that people are not aware of. … I think there have been good efforts to draw attention to it, but despite this I still find people are not paying enough attention.”

If there’s hope to be found in any of this — even glimmers — it comes from people like Tacoma’s U.S. Rep Adam Smith, who over the years has become a pointed critic of privatized immigration detention and the NWDC.

“We need to get private, for-profit companies out of the business of running immigration detention facilities,” Smith said in a statement released Tuesday, shortly after news of the GEO contract broke.

Smith has twice introduced legislation to establish transparent standards within immigration facilities and eliminate matters such as the federal detention bed mandate, which requires ICE to have at least 34,000 detention beds for immigrants at any given time. He is also working to end contractual promises to provide detention centers guaranteed numbers of detainees each day.

So far, Smith’s work in Washington, D.C., has gone unrewarded. And perhaps that’s no surprise, given the ramped-up immigration rhetoric of late and what Baron calls the growing “fortress America” mentality.

Let’s hope he keeps pushing.

“This contract is a symbol of systemic problems in our immigration detention system that we must fix,” Smith’s statement continued. “... Until Congress takes action to address these issues, we are left with a flawed detention policy that benefits private corporations at high cost to taxpayers, detainees and families of those affected.”

For Tacoma to do its part, the first step is to stop turning a blind eye.