Politics & Government

In Trump era, could Tacoma Tideflats immigration detention center grow?

The Northwest Detention Center, a privately owned and operated immigration detention center, was built on the Tacoma Tideflats to replace a similar facility in Seattle. It opened in 2004 with a 500-bed capacity and has since expanded capacity three times, to 1,575 beds, making it one of the largest immigration detention centers in the United States.
The Northwest Detention Center, a privately owned and operated immigration detention center, was built on the Tacoma Tideflats to replace a similar facility in Seattle. It opened in 2004 with a 500-bed capacity and has since expanded capacity three times, to 1,575 beds, making it one of the largest immigration detention centers in the United States. Staff file, 2012

The federal immigration detention center on the Tacoma Tideflats has 1,575 beds, and most of them are filled.

Given the Trump administration’s intention to ramp up deportations, will even more detainees be coming to Tacoma, and will the Northwest Detention Center need to expand to accommodate them?

Some of the region’s elected officials aren’t discounting the possibility and said they’d look at ways to stop it.

“Obviously, the Trump administration wants to detain more people, and from that you could maybe conclude that it might happen, but nobody knows,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, who opposes the idea.

“I don’t know if they’ve thought that far in advance,” said Smith, a Democrat whose district encompasses the detention center. “If they have, they certainly haven’t shared it with anybody.”

Specifics about plans for individual detention facilities, including the privately owned and operated Tideflats center, weren’t available, local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Rose Richeson said Friday.

ICE contracts with The GEO Group of Boca Raton, Florida, to run the detention facility, one of the country’s largest by population. It opened in 2004 and later was bought by GEO, which finished an expansion in 2009.

The average daily headcount at the center in fiscal year 2017 has been 1,516 people, up from the average of 875 that ICE reported for February 2015, Richeson said. She did not have figures to show how the population has fluctuated since then.

Many detainees who pass through the center are from Mexico and have committed minor offenses. Others come from across the world.

Most are men, but women also are detained there, along with some people convicted of serious crimes. Many come to the center after being released from jail or prison.

Asked whether there had been discussion of expanding the facility again, or building other detention centers in the region, Pablo Paez, GEO vice president of corporate relations, referred The News Tribune to ICE and the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Richeson said no specifics are available yet on how the Tacoma center might be affected, but said ICE is taking steps to increase the number of people it can detain nationally.

“To support the further need for increased detention capacity, particularly along the southwest border, ICE is currently defining contracting requirements.” she said via email Friday. “A list of potential detention locations is under review, which would supply additional beds.”

Smith doesn’t believe the increase in detention beds will be limited to border towns, though.

“I don’t really accept the premise that they’re simply looking at border areas,” he said. “The ICE raids that they did last week were not just in border towns.”

On Friday, President Donald Trump promised to throw immigrants in the United States illegally “the hell out of the country” as he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, The New York Times reported.

During his campaign and in his executive orders on immigration last month, Trump presented increasing deportations as necessary for national security and public safety.

“I will never ever apologize for protecting the safety and security of the American people,” he said Friday. “I won’t do it.”

Regardless of where the increased detention happens to facilitate the president’s plans, Smith disagrees with the administration’s immigration policy.

“Locking people up is something we already do too much of in this country, and now we have a president who is hell-bent on locking more people up,” he said.

Smith thinks the first step to block an expansion in Tacoma would happen at the city level, and he expects it would end up in court.

“I think to stop that would require a legal approach,” he said. “... We’ll wait and see what happens, but we’ll certainly push back as hard as we can.”

Mayor Marilyn Strickland said the federal government probably would find it easier to expand detention facilities in areas more amenable to the president’s agenda than Tacoma.

“It’s pretty obvious that Washington state and the cities in Washington state do not support the policies that are coming out of the White House and this administration,” she said.

Asked whether the city would fight a potential expansion of the Northwest Detention Center, Strickland said: “I don’t think anyone supports the idea of expanding the for-profit prison industrial complex in our city or anywhere else.

“We’d have to look at the options we have within the bounds of what’s legal.”

A factor in determining those legal bounds could be whether the detention center qualifies under state law as an “essential public facility.”

Facilities that are, such as airports, pretty much can’t be prevented by cities from expanding.

When the detention center prepared to expand to 1,575 beds from 1,030 beds in 2008, then-City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli advised the City Council that the center met that definition and essentially couldn’t be kept from growing.

But the issue appears open to interpretation.

Asked about it by The News Tribune, Deputy City Attorney Jeff Capell, who handles land-use matters, said he doesn’t think the center meets the definition.

He pointed to a section of state law that states “state and local correctional facilities” have the “essential” status.

“We have to have state and local facilities, because we have to take care of our own incarcerated,” he said. “We don’t have to do that for the feds. That (the detention center) could be located anywhere in the country. … It doesn’t have to be here.”

Peter Huffman, the city’s Planning and Development Services director, said he thinks the city would consult with the state Department of Commerce if the issue arose. That agency guides cities when it comes to the Growth Management Act, which defines “essential public facilities.”

Huffman also noted that if the detention center expanded by 12,000 square feet or more, it would trigger a state environmental impact review. Any proposed expansion also would go through a review process at the city level.

“They would have to get building permits and all other applicable permits,” he said. “Parking, utilities. … All applicable codes would be enforced.”

It’s hard to say whether GEO could meet local zoning and permitting requirements, as well as restrictions in its federal contract, to expand the detention center on its current Tideflats land.

The company owns 17.8 acres in the area, Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan said. The buildings on the property add up to 277,000 square feet (about 6.4 acres). The total footprint is less than that because some buildings have multiple floors.

City Councilman Ryan Mello said he thinks the council should consider changes to the city code, to try to prevent future detention centers or the expansion of the one on the Tideflats.

“I certainly don’t think the detention center should be in Tacoma, I don’t think it should expand,” he said. “We want to be promoting good-paying, industrial and manufacturing jobs in the Port of Tacoma. This does not fit that criteria.”

He also argues the center should cover more of the costs for the police and fire services it requires. The center has a disproportionate impact on city services, given the taxes it pays, which would be exacerbated by an expansion, he said.

Given the goals of the new administration, is such an expansion possible?

“I think it’s a pretty logical question to ask,” Mello said.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell