Tacoma gets a win in effort to keep the Northwest Detention Center from growing

Tacoma gets a win in effort to keep the Northwest Detention Center from growing

The city of Tacoma won a battle last week in its effort to prevent the immigration detention center on the Tideflats from expanding.

Earlier this year, the city put regulations on correctional and detention facilities that would prevent the Northwest Detention Center from adding to the 1,575 beds it has for detaining people whose immigration status is in question.

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The regulations were challenged by GEO Group, the private company that owns and operates the facility under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Geo appealed to the state's Growth Management Hearings Board and sued the city in federal court.

The lawsuit is pending. On Thursday, the hearings board upheld the city regulations.

The company did not respond to a News Tribune inquiry about the board’s decision.

GEO has 30 days to appeal, sending the issue to the state Court of Appeals, said Steve Victor, the attorney for the city who is handling the matter.

He also noted the ruling could affect the federal lawsuit.

“I can’t predict what at this point,” he added.

GEO is fighting an ordinance the city passed in February that prevents the detention center from adding beds, requires a rigorous permitting process for new correctional or detention facilities and severely limits where detention facilities can be sited.

The company argued that under state law the detention center qualifies as an “essential public facility,” and that therefore the regulations violated the Growth Management Act.

The hearings board disagreed, noting in its written decision that state law that defines "essential public facilities" references "state and local correctional facilities," but not federal ones.

Victor said the ruling means the regulations “are valid exercises of the city’s land-use authority.”

“... At least for purposes of land use,” he said, “under the Growth Management Act, the Northwest Detention Center is not different from any other business in Tacoma, subject to the zoning rules of any other business.”

Jorge Baron, director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said he welcomed the board’s ruling.

“I’m glad that the board rejected their argument that they fall under this category,” he said. “Here we have a situation where a contractor is trying to operate here in our state, our local communities, and it’s saying: ‘We’re in this exception zone.’”

Victor said the facility can keep operating at its current size, and that it has not applied to add beds in recent years.

The City Council started looking into limiting potential expansion of the detention center in early 2017, after President Donald Trump took office and increased deportations.

The board’s ruling noted that the facility “... is presently unpopular with the City’s elected officials, in stark contrast to the enthusiasm with which it was initially sited.”

City Councilman Ryan Mello said Tuesday of the Tideflats location: “We don’t think it’s an appropriate place for people to live or be detained. ... It’s not consistent with it being land that is poised for manufacturing and industrial jobs.”

GEO has argued that “banning” the detention center won’t change federal immigration policy, and that, without the center, detainees could be transferred out of state.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268@amkrell