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Tacoma leaders to push members of Congress on immigrant detention

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
In this file photo, taken June 21, 2017, a detainee sits on a bunk in a women's area at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Leaders of Tacoma, home to one of the nation's largest holding spaces for people facing deportation, plan to lobby members of Congress this week to reform the immigrant detention system.

Mayor Victoria Woodards and several other City Council members are in Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the National League of Cities. While there, they plan to meet with federal representatives over concerns about the federal facility in Tacoma, said Alisa O'Hanlon, the city's government relations coordinator.

Activists have pressured Tacoma's leaders to assert more authority over, or even close, the Northwest Detention Center, which houses up to 1,575 people who are suspected of immigration violations or seeking asylum.

Those calls have grown louder during the Trump administration, as activists have packed City Council meetings, police have clashed with protesters outside the detention center, and detainees have staged hunger strikes to draw attention to conditions inside the facility.

In November, a detainee died after attempting suicide, bringing new scrutiny to the detention center and prompting an internal investigation by officials at the Department of Homeland Security. 

The Northwest Detention Center — the only facility of its kind in the Pacific Northwest — is run by a private company, the GEO Group, under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. 

Tacoma's leaders have said that they have little power to regulate the detention center on their own. 

"I think we all acknowledge we can't change federal legislation, but we certainly can do everything within our power to advocate to those who can," City Council Member Conor McCarthy said at a March 5 meeting. 

"We have a duty as leaders of our community to make sure that the individuals detained at the facility are treated properly," McCarthy added. "That they receive the proper health care, that they receive proper food." 

Woodards has drafted a letter to members of Washington's congressional delegation outlining the City Council's wishes. They include "eliminating the profit motive to detain people," strengthening oversight of detention centers, and expanding alternatives to detention.

"As long as this facility is in our city, we will seek every means possible to ensure the rights, dignity, health and safety of the detainees are protected," Woodwards wrote.

Tacoma's Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs is reviewing the letter before it's sent. 

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.