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Tacoma Considers Limits On Immigrant Detention Center

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma in 2008, which the center's latest expansion was under consideration

Tacoma officials are considering limits on any future expansion of the Northwest Detention Center, the region's only detention center for immigrants facing deportation. 

The detention center is run by a private company under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Since it opened in 2004, its capacity has tripled from 500 beds to 1,575, making it one of the largest such centers in the United States. 

A proposed city law would restrict construction of any new jail in Tacoma and require a lengthy process of hearings and reviews before any further expansion of the detention center.

A public hearing before the city's Planning Commission is scheduled for Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Tacoma City Hall. 

For activists planning to attend the hearing, it's an opportunity to voice their objection to the detention center's existence. For years, they have urged city officials to find a way to shut it down. 

"Tacoma has become a synonym of detention and deportation," said Maru Mora Villalpando, a Bellingham-based activist with the group Northwest Detention Center Resistance. 

"People detained arrive in the detention center and they call us. They don't tell us, 'I arrived in the Northwest Detention Center,'" she said. "People tell us, 'I'm here in Tacoma.'" 

The GEO Group, the company that runs the detention center, said if it didn't exist, detainees would likely be transferred to local jails and could end up out-of-state.

"Banning an immigration processing center in Tacoma will not stop or change federal immigration policies, and in fact such a disruption could hurt the very residents in the care of federal immigration authorities," the company said in a statement.

The proposed law would permanently codify temporary regulations the City Council imposed last year, which are scheduled to expire in March. 

The regulations limit the construction of any new jails or detention centers to an industrial area on the city's tideflats, where the Northwest Detention Center sits. 

Any new correctional facility in that area, or any expansion of the existing detention center, would also have to go through a more stringent review process, said Ian Munce, a city planner for Tacoma.

"There would have to be organized community meetings," he said. "There'd need to be what in planner speak we call a conditional use permit, which means that approval isn't automatic. It has to go through a public notice and review process." 

A Trump administration memo issued last year called for the expansion of detention centers, part of a planned ramp-up of immigration enforcement. 

A GEO Group representative declined to say whether the company had any plans to expand the center. Instead, he referred to the company's earlier statement. 

“The Tacoma ICE Processing Center has operated in Tacoma for more than 13 years under both Democrat and Republican Presidential Administrations and has a longstanding record providing high quality, culturally responsive services in a safe, secure, and humane environment that meets the needs of the residents in the custody and care of federal immigration authorities," the statement said, in part.

The GEO Group took over the detention center in 2005, when it acquired the company that had been operating it, Correctional Services Corporation.

The Northwest Detention Center last grew in 2009, when it expanded from 1,030 beds to 1,575.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.