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Tacoma's leaders move to send a message to Trump on immigration

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
A file photo of the Northwest Detention Center from 2008.

Leaders in Tacoma, home to one of the nation's largest detention centers for immigrants facing deportation, may vote Tuesday to express disapproval with the Trump administration's approach to border enforcement.

A resolution under consideration by the City Council criticizes President Donald Trump's so-called "zero tolerance" policy on illegal immigration, which resulted in the federal government separating more than 2,500 children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border this year. 

The resolution calls on the federal government to reunify any parents and children being held in separate locations as a result of the policy, including parents detained in Tacoma. 

At least four parents who were separated from their children earlier this year are still being held at the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma's tideflats, according to the nonprofit Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. 

The resolution also calls for "the release from federal custody of all parents, children, and families, pending their misdemeanor and/or immigration proceedings" and "the following of an asylum law for all those crossing the border and seeking asylum." 

A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Tacoma's leaders have faced pressure from activists in recent years to take a stand against the Trump administration's policies on immigration. 

Residents critical of the Trump administration have said Tacoma's history of being a regional hub for detaining immigrants who lack legal status gives city leaders a responsibility to speak up.

"Tacoma's influence in having the Northwest Detention Center in our backyard means that whatever we decide here ultimately impacts families in other states," said Saiyare Refaei, a member of the city's Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

Refaei, who grew up in Oregon, said one of the first times she heard of Tacoma was when she was in high school and a relative was arrested by immigration authorities and held at the Northwest Detention Center.

"Tacoma is called the 'City of Destiny,' but for some that destiny could lead to deportation," Refaei said. Her relative was eventually released and remains in the U.S., she added.

Tacoma has a long and complex relationship with immigration policy. The Northwest Detention Center, which opened in 2004 with approval from the City Council, now holds up to 1,575 people as they go through deportation proceedings.

The City Council disappointed some activists last year by declining to declare Tacoma a "sanctuary city" for immigrants without legal status. The council had declared Tacoma a "welcoming city" in 2015.

In October 2017, the council set aside $50,000 to launch a "defense fund" to provide attorneys for city residents facing deportation, and asked for private donations to flesh out the fund.

About $7,000 in contributions has come in since the fund was established, said Alison Beason, a senior policy analyst for Tacoma's Office of Equity and Human Rights.

Meanwhile, a court case brought by asylum seekers detained locally could have broad implications for immigrants held in facilities across the U.S. 

The lawsuit, filed in June by four asylum seekers held in Washington or California earlier this year, seeks to reduce the amount of time people seeking asylum, or refugee status, can be detained in facilities like the Northwest Detention Center.

The asylum seekers argue initial interviews with asylum officers should happen within 10 days and bond hearings should happen within a week, and that their multi-week waits in detention violated their constitutional due process rights. 

"People are entering the country, they are expressing their fear of return and seeking asylum, and being detained for, in our plaintiffs' case, from five to eight weeks until even getting to speak with an asylum officer," said Leila Kang, a Northwest Immigrant Rights Project attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Attorneys for the federal government argued that those rights do not apply to asylum seekers because they lack legal status. But, on Dec. 11, a federal judge in Seattle said the case could move forward on constitutional grounds. 

"We believe that it's very critical at this moment to seek relief that entitles individuals to a reasonable time period in which they're given asylum screenings and in which they can seek release from detention," Kang said. 


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.