Politics & Government

Protesters press Tacoma City Council to take action against ICE detention center

More than two dozen activists protesting the existence and policies of the Northwest Detention Center aired their grievances Tuesday night in front of the Tacoma City Council.

The group came to the meeting mainly to oppose the city's recent erection of temporary fencing near the facility on Tacoma's Tideflats that holds people arrested for immigration violations. The fencing keeps people eight feet away from nearby BNSF Railways train tracks but also cordons off an area often used by protesters of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, which is run by the for-profit GEO Group.

Nikie Walters was one of the first people to speak during the community forum. She criticized Mayor Victoria Woodards and the council for not taking action against the presence of the detention center in the city.

"Saying and doing are two different things," the Tacoma resident said. "And putting a fence around the detention center makes a big statement."

Before opening the floor to speakers, Woodards explained that the city's Human Rights Commission and its Immigrant and Refugee Task Force began working last month to craft legislation addressed at the Northwest Detention Center. The council is waiting for that legislation to be complete before taking action, Woodards added, noting that the regular committee process would be bypassed to help it come to the full council more quickly.

"We as a council will take that up personally," the mayor said.

Tensions between activists and city officials came to a head June 26 after 10 people were arrested outside the detention center during the nightly 9 p.m. noise demonstration, in which protesters make as much sound as possible so that the detainees can hear them through the walls.

Videos from that night shown to a News Tribune reporter show a young man in a dark hoodie pushing a shopping cart in front of an unmarked Tacoma police SUV and then standing in front of it. At one point, another man moved the cart out of the way and appeared to try to coax the 17-year-old away from the front of the SUV.

The officer ordered the protesters to clear the street, police have said, then called for backup as his car was surrounded. About two dozen law enforcement officers responded to the facility at 1623 E. J St., leading to the arrests.

Of the 10 arrested, two were charged in Pierce County Superior Court with third-degree assault, resisting arrest and obstructing police. The others were released.

The nightly noise demonstrations began June 23 when protesters began to camp out in front of the detention center in protest of President Trump's policy of separating migrant children from their arrested parents.

The protesters set up tents, canopies and an impromptu restroom, but Tacoma police cited city code prohibiting unpermitted structures built in public rights-of-way and ordered the structures removed on June 26. Protesters complied within the 24-hour deadline.

The fencing then was put in some of the space protesters previously had used.

City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said the fence, which the city paid about $2,800 to rent, will be up for three months, by which point BNSF Railways will erect permanent fencing. The eight-foot buffer around the track is the minimum distance for safety, she said, and said BNSF expressed interest in having the integrity of their right-of-way preserved.

Some protesters implied the city has contracts with ICE and GEO Group, though City Attorney Bill Fosbre said in response to a question from Councilman Anders Ibsen that no such relationships exist.

A handful of protesters never entered the council chambers, instead banging pots and pans outside City Hall, the sounds echoing in whenever the chamber doors opened.

Michael Collier, an immigrant and naturalized citizen, impelled the council to take action against the detention center and invited council members to join protesters during the nightly noise demonstrations outside the facility.

"Come down and join us," he said. "And bring your pots, because ours are beginning to wear a little thin."