Is this the end of Tacoma’s immigrant detention center? Local officials declare victory

City of Tacoma officials and local advocates celebrated Tuesday the passing of a bill by the state Senate that would essentially close down the operation of the Northwest ICE Processing Center on the Tideflats.

House Bill 1090 prohibits the operation of private prisons and detention centers in Washington state and was approved by the state Senate in a 28-21 vote. It now heads to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee, who is likely to sign it.

Under the bill, the Northwest ICE Processing Center would be allowed to continue operations until 2025 when GEO Group’s contract with the federal government expires. GEO Group is the company that operates the center.

Reached by email on Tuesday, GEO Group referred The News Tribune to a Feb. 24 news release from the Day 1 Alliance, a trade association representing private sector contractors working in the criminal justice and immigration systems, which calls the bill “political theater.”

“The Northwest ICE Processing Center has operated in Tacoma for more than 20 years under Democratic and Republican Presidential Administrations, offering the same high-quality services to the federal government throughout,” Day 1 Alliance spokesperson Alexandra Wilkes said in the release. “The facility operates today under the same strict performance standards that existed under President Obama’s administration. So, the question must be asked, why are Washington State politicians expressing faux outrage today?”

Council member Catherine Ushka, who testified in support of the bill earlier this year, told The News Tribune on Tuesday that the news is a “huge victory” for Tacoma and local advocates.

“We’ve been working on this for a couple of years now,” Ushka said. “It will be the phasing out of the Northwest Detention Center and that’s something to celebrate. That being said, there’s a lot of work ahead, federally and otherwise in relation to immigrants’ rights. But right now we should celebrate the moment.”

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards echoed the sentiment in a statement on Tuesday.

“Prohibiting private, for-profit detention centers in Washington State is a significant victory for immigrant rights advocates and so many members of our community. A number of dedicated community advocates, my peers on the City Council, and I have worked tirelessly over the past two sessions to encourage passage of this important legislation,” she said.

Woodards added that the state of Washington now joins California in “influencing change to the immigrant detention system by passing this bill preventing any new for-profit detention centers from setting up in our state.” She thanked elected officials, including Representatives Lillian Ortiz-Self and Jake Fey, as well as Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins and Senator Jeannie Darneille for supporting the bill.

“I want to thank Tacoma’s Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, which has done the critical work of convening, informing, and advising on all issues related to immigrant and refugee safety and well-being in Tacoma,” she said. “Many members of this Commission have also engaged in important advocacy efforts outside of their work with the City. Among the many dedicated champions for immigrant rights in our community, I specifically want to thank La Resistencia for meeting with us regularly and keeping these issues at the forefront of our policy work.”

In 2000, Tacoma City Council approved the construction of the detention center. To date, more than 46,000 immigrants have been detained there.

In recent years, leaders of Tacoma have been vocal about their disapproval of the center. Eliminating the operation of privately owned and operated immigration detention facilities was a legislative priority for 2021. City leaders cited concerns for the health, safety and welfare of detainees held there.

“The City has called for the release of everyone and the closure of business at the NWDC due to public health risk during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the city stated in its 2021 legislative priorities in December. “In addition to pushing for changes to federal immigration policy, the City supports efforts at the state level to eliminate privately operated detention centers as an immigration enforcement option in Washington State.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, Maru Mora Villalpando, vocal immigrant rights activist with La Resistencia, said she was elated by passage of the bill.

“We believe that Washington state now demonstrates that we don’t agree with having for-profit, private companies running prisons, such as NWDC,” she said. “... I think that it shows a good step towards having people in our state treated fairly.

“We just talked to a family of people detained — they are also elated. We were all crying together.”

Mora Villalpando and other La Resistencia advocates have protested and voiced concerns over the welfare of detainees, reporting numerous hunger strikes from within the center and concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

She said next steps are to continue working with detainees to get them vaccinated and released.

“We have a clear timeline,” she said. “We have four years left of this contract, so we’re going to focus on emptying the place, making sure that people are released.”

Mora Villalpando also thanked the city of Tacoma leadership for advocating for the center’s closure.

“I think it’s important to highlight that residents of Tacoma have shown that they also don’t want the detention center there — it’s been a shame to the city,” she said. “But it’s been great to see how the city council has evolved.”

This story was originally published on The News Tribune.