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How A 'Yawner' Of A Vote Made Tacoma A 'Detention City'

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
A sign seen on a fence outside the Northwest Detention Center on July 10, 2018

More than 46,000 immigrants have been detained in Pierce County over the past two decades, the fourth highest number of any county in the U.S.

It's because Tacoma is home to the Northwest Detention Center, one of the nation's largest holding spaces for people facing deportation due to suspected immigration violations. It's the only such facility in the Pacific Northwest. 

Today, its presence has made Tacoma an epicenter of protest against the Trump administration and its hardline policies on immigration. 

But 18 years ago, Tacoma's complex relationship with national immigration policy started with a little-noticed decision by the City Council. In 2000, its members voted 9-0 to support the federal government's plans to build the detention center on Tacoma's tideflats. 

"It was all quiet," said Brian Ebersole, who was mayor in 2000. "There was no organized opposition." 

It was such a non-issue, Ebersole didn't even remember the vote. 

"Until you told me, I wouldn't have been able to say that we passed a resolution of support," he said in a recent interview. "And I'm sorry we did." 

Ebersole, like many residents now criticizing the detention center, said he opposes the Trump administration's handling of immigration and objects to the idea of private prisons. He left the mayor's office shortly after the vote to lead Bates Technical College.

The Northwest Detention Center is run by one of the country's largest for-profit prison companies, the GEO Group, under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

"If you're going to deny somebody civil liberties and lock them up, that should be done by government, not influenced by profit motives," Ebersole said.

The GEO Group's current 10-year contract with ICE runs through 2025. The company, which is paid per detainee, estimates the Northwest Detention Center will bring in $57 million in revenue a year if it operates at capacity. 

"I wish that the detention center had never been sited here," Ebersole said. "And if it happened on my watch, I made a mistake." 

'Detention City'

Ebersole's feelings reflect a broader shift in Tacoma.

Residents who once ignored the detention center's presence, or didn't know about it, have been spurred to protest. 

Credit Will James / KNKX Public Radio
KNKX Public Radio
Protesters camped outside the Northwest Detention Center for several weeks in June and July of 2018

Throughout the summer, parents with children and teachers have joined hardcore activsts wearing hoods and bandanas to rally outside the detention center's chain link gates.

Residents have packed City Council meetings this year to demand the city try to close the detention center by revoking the GEO Group's local business license.

Tacoma's leaders have declined to pull the license, saying that step is only appropriate if a business racks up multiple code violations.

"As a municipal government entity, we have the responsibility of applying the same standards in a fair and equitable manner to all businesses," a city spokeswoman said. 

Wendy Pantoja, a Tacoma activist, argued for that course of action nonetheless at a July council meeting.

Tacoma, she said, has developed a national reputation as a "detention city." 

It's a common theme expressed by Tacomans critical of the detention center: that its presence has tied a solidly Democratic-leaning city to detention, deportation, and the policies of the Trump administration.

"I was definitely not happy to find out that it was in my town," said Melanie Forster, who has lived in Tacoma since 2001 and joined a protest outside the detention center in August. 

Vince Kueter, a 27-year Tacoma resident who was at the same protest, said national news left Tacomans who are opposed to President Donald Trump's policies seeking a way to register their frustration.

The detention center gave them an outlet in their backyard. 

"When a lot of those anti-immigration drives were going on and a lot of national debate was going on, then people said, 'Well, there's this thing down here,'" Kueter said. 

But, he added, if Tacoma is now reckoning with its ties to national immigration policy, it's only because local activists have been laying the groundwork for years.

Timothy Smith, a retired Army intelligence technician, got his start in activism fighting for civil liberties and against government surveillance after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He turned his attention to the Northwest Detention Center after it opened in 2004.

In those early years, he was one of the only people publicly demanding city officials take on a more aggressive oversight role. 

But, these days, it can feel like the entire city has joined him. 

"I don't feel anywhere near as lonely as a I did," Smith said after making remarks at an August City Council meeting. "I feel good to be in Tacoma tonight."

'Significant Concerns'

While Tacoma's leaders have declined to revoke the GEO Group's license, they have found themselves at odds with the company and its federal partners at ICE. 

Credit Ted S. Warren / AP Photo
AP Photo
A GEO Group employee at the Northwest Detention Center, seen on a tour of the facility on June 21, 2017

In February, City Council members passed zoning regulations that would make it much harder for the Northwest Detention Center to expand beyond its current 1,575-bed capacity.

The GEO Group sued to reverse the law, and the case is making its way through federal court.

The company says the city passed the law to hamper immigration enforcement. City leaders say it's designed to save valuable land for projects more desirable than jails or similar facilities. 

But a point of peak tension arrived earlier, in April 2017, when City Council members were still weighing the law. Calls to shut down the detention center were at their loudest. 

That's when Thomas Homan, then the acting director of ICE, intervened from Washington, D.C.

Homan expressed what he called "significant concerns" in a letter to then-Mayor Marilyn Strickland.

ICE officials have said the agency has no plans to expand the Northwest Detention Center, despite a Trump administration memorandum calling for a nationwide expansion of immigrant detention. 

But Homan said in the 2017 letter that expanding the Tacoma detention center at some point in the future could benefit the people held there by creating more space for living and dining areas, attorney-client meeting rooms, and immigration courtrooms. It could allow for improved medical and dental services, he said.

GEO Group leaders joined the debate, highlighting their record in Tacoma in a published letter to The News Tribune. Their record includes accreditation by the American Correctional Association, which evaluated the facility for safety and other factors, as well as high marks each year from inspectors hired by ICE. 

A GEO Group spokesman said this week that the company is proud of its record and provides a "safe, secure, and humane environment" in Tacoma.

The spokesman, Pablo Paez, said closing the detention center would likely result in detainees being held in local jails, which are not held to the same federal standards and may be in other states.

Homan, in his 2017 letter, suggested Tacoma's leaders were encroaching on federal turf. 

"While ICE certainly respects the City of Tacoma's role in our federated system of government, Tacoma's efforts to alter immigration detention decisions under the guise of a change in zoning policy manifests a lack of appreciation — or understanding — for ICE's role," he wrote. 

A day after Homan's letter was sent, Tacoma leaders grappled publicly with the city's relationship to the detention center and growing pressure from residents to take a harder line.

Strickland, the mayor, spoke in City Council chambers before a crowd that had gathered for a hearing on the law.

"Let’s say hypothetically that we got to a point where we shut this detention center down," she said. "It doesn’t change the federal policy of arresting people. So if they don’t end up here in Tacoma, they might end up in California or Texas or another city."

Plus, Strickland said, Tacoma's relationship with the detention center was sealed in 2000.

"That particular City Council gave the approval to put a detention center in our city," she said. "Period."

'Lemonade Out of Lemons'

The City Council's 2000 resolution, laying out reasons for supporting the detention center, said the project "would bring $40 million in new investment and provide hundreds of family-wage job opportunities." 

Ebersole, the former mayor, now feels the project was dumped on Tacoma.

"The federal government and the company would never have tried to site this in Seattle because Seattle is very progressive," he said. "People view Tacoma as more industrial and more willing to take anything to foster economic development."

Credit Ted S. Warren / AP Photo
AP Photo
Detainees walk past a mural inside the Northwest Detention Center on June 21, 2017

The GEO Group says it now employs 385 people at the Northwest Detention Center, more than three-quarters of whom live in Pierce County. Of those, 99 live in Tacoma, a company spokesman said.

But to Ebersole, the city's support for the project speaks to a theme in Tacoma's history: eagerness for investment and blindness to potential downsides. 

"We weren't discriminating enough," Ebersole said. "We didn't pick and choose and learn that certain investments, like museums and universities, will brand us as a vibrant, cultivated place, and other investments will brand us as an industrial town reflective of our past." 

Kevin Phelps, who represented the City Council district where the detention center was built, sponsored the resolution supporting the project in 2000.

But in a recent intervieiw, Phelps said he never lobbied for the detention center to be in Tacoma. 

Federal officials, he said, were already shopping around the region as they sought to replace an aging and overcrowded detention center near Seattle's Chinatown-International District.

They tried and failed to find sites for a new detention center near the cities of Auburn and Pacific, according to a federal environmental review from 2001.

King County officials declined to cooperate with a land annexation needed to make the project work near Auburn. Snags with the Pacific site included residents' concerns about safety, the document said.

Federal officials began eyeing Tacoma. Phelps said all he could do was steer them away from a prime piece of land in the city's port and toward the isolated property where it was eventually built, at the edge of a Superfund site known as the "Tacoma Tar Pits."

The site's history of pollution, from Tacoma's industrial heyday, meant it would have been hard to develop otherwise.

Phelps said working with the federal government allowed the city to keep a valuable piece of land in the port open for development while also moving the detention center away from residential neighborhoods. 

"They make it sound like we were recruiting and we were 'rah rah rah' for getting the new facility," he said. "In my mind, I was trying to come as close to making lemonade out of lemons as I could.”

Phelps believes if city officials didn't cooperate, the federal government and its contractor would have built a detention center in the port anyway, and there was little the city government could have done to stop it.

As for the original piece of port land, Phelps said he believes it's still vacant. A Port of Tacoma spokesman said the port may have sold the property to the Puyallup Tribe, though a tribal spokesman could not confirm that this week. 

Mike Crowley, who also on the council at that time, said his reason for supporting the project was simple: "Jobs."  

Crowley, who stands by his vote today, said in a recent interview that council members were focused on two priorities at the time: growing employment and fighting crime linked to illegal drugs coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. The detention center, he said, seemed to advance both.

But the 2000 vote was a "yawner," Crowley said, with little enthusiasm for or against the project. That's at least partially because the politics around immigration were less fraught at the time, he said. 

"I don't think there was any stigma, as I recall," he said, "about detaining families or anything like that."

'New Tacoma Method' 

A lot has changed since 2000. 

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration dissolved the federal immigration agency working to build the detention center, theImmigration and Naturalization Service or INS. It was partially replaced by ICE, an arm of the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security.

The Northwest Detention Center was built with support from Washington state. A body created by the state legislature, the Washington Economic Development Finance Authority, issued $57 million in bonds for the project. 

Since then, the detention center's capacity has more than tripled from its original 500 beds. In 2011, expansion efforts received more help from the state's finance authority, in the form of $54 million in bonds.

ICE's arrests swelled then declined under President Barack Obama and are rising again under Trump. The backlog of immigration cases hit a 20-year high both nationally and in Washington state this year, though it has eased slightly at the Northwest Detention Center after a peak in 2016.

Meanwhile, the question of who gets deported and why has grown into one of the most polarizing issues in American politics.

In 2000, similar percentages of Republican and Democratic voters agreed immigrants strengthen the country, according to the Pew Research Center. Since then, the parties have diverged, with the gap widening during the Trump era.

In Tacoma, the detention center's presence makes those politics local.

Smith, the former Army intelligence technician who has protested the detention center from the beginning, has had to step back.

He said he's lost friends over his activism. He almost lost a partner. He now spends a lot of time visiting with his grandchildren in Arkansas.

"The detention center is like a big black hole," he said. "I can feel across the miles just the horror of the people there. And when you live that close to it, like I did and do, I just had to get away from it and go try to be a grandpa."

Smith, who is white, has happily watched activists of color grow more prominent in the movement, like the undocumented leader Maru Mora Villalpando.

Credit Manuel Valdes / AP Photo
AP Photo
Activist Maru Mora Villalpando speaks at a protest outside the Northwest Detention Center on March 18, 2018

They have "credibility," he said, that has enabled them to make progress where he couldn't, by corresponding with detainees, telling their stories, and drumming up publicity for hunger strikes in the detention center.

Smith said the surge of local interest means there's no better time for Tacoma to change its relationship to the Northwest Detention Center.

Like a lot of activists, he hopes it eventually leaves Tacoma.

Others have a different view: The very fact Tacomans are scutinizing the detention center is a sign Tacoma is the right place for it.

"If I had a family member who was being detained by immigration, I would probably prefer to have them in the Northwest," said Phelps, the former council member who sponsored the resolution backing the project. He is now the city manager of Glendale, Arizona.

Phelps said, in a state like his where sentiments are different, detainees wouldn't have the same access to free legal services provided by nonprofits or help getting back on their feet upon release.

Smith said that if detention must exist, Tacoma should lead the way in making the practice more humane. He often calls on city leaders to set an example for other cities by finding novel ways to assert some local control over the Northwest Detention Center. 

He said local oversight of federal detention could represent a "new Tacoma Method." That's a reference to the original Tacoma Method, which refers to a mob that ran all Chinese residents out of Tacoma in 1885, creating a playbook for nativists elsewhere in the U.S. 

"We should be able to have oversight of this facility better than anybody else in the United States," Smith said. "That’s how good Tacoma is. Tacoma has to find its goodness. It has to find its heart and not just be saying, 'Oh, we’re sorry.'"

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.