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‘Bad information’ or ‘bad PR’? KNKX takes a look inside Tacoma’s immigration facility

A detainee walks in a hallway during a media tour at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility Tuesday in Tacoma.
Ted S. Warren
/
The Associated Press
A detainee walks in a hallway during a media tour at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility Tuesday in Tacoma.

One of Nathalie Asher's first goals in returning to the Northwest from three years in D.C. is to combat what she says are myths and misinformation about immigration enforcement and detention.

"We've never done this kind of an extensive tour like this," the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement Seattle field office director told media outside the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma.

Asher started just over a month ago. She said she wants to push back against the idea that immigrants being detained during deportation proceedings are being treated poorly.

"I think the footage will show otherwise," she said. "This is clean. We have professionals that run the facility. The needs are met for the individuals while they're in our custody."

The processing center, formerly and more commonly known as the Northwest Detention Center, is run by the GEO Group. GEO is a private company that contracts with ICE.

The center in Tacoma is one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country. It can house up to 1,575 men and women. Asher says more than 1,300 are in custody as of Tuesday.

Inside, the building looks like most other modern institutions. The doors are heavy and metal for security. The walls are generally white, with the exception of the main hallways, which are covered in large murals painted by detainees.

The detainees are not generally bound as they move from the living unit to work or to get medication. But their movements are tightly controlled. They wear uniforms based on their security level: Men wear blue and green for low-to-medium or orange and red for medium-to-high. The women either wear yellow or pink.

Most of the detainees are men. And about 65 percent were brought here from the southwestern part of the U.S.-Mexico border. Most of the rest were picked up in local arrests, Asher says.

ICE Seattle Field Office Director Nathalie Asher explains how detainees are classified during a media tour at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma on Tuesday.
Credit Simone Alicea / KNKX
/
KNKX
ICE Seattle Field Office Director Nathalie Asher explains how detainees are classified during a media tour at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma on Tuesday.

The living units look kind of like barracks behind the thick glass and metal doors. Bunk beds are on the top and bottom floors, segmented four or five at a time. It works out to be several dozen people sleeping and living in one pod.

Media were not allowed to speak to detainees during the tour. But many watched in hallways and behind glass as cameras and microphones crowded the spaces.

The detention center in Tacoma increasingly has become the object of ire for immigrant-rights advocates in the region. City officials have sought to limit its expansion and have lobbied Congress. It has faced hunger strikes from the inside and protests outside. It's the subject of lawsuits by detainees and the state attorney general

"Sadly, that becomes the ongoing story, especially in this area," Asher said. "That people are mistreated here."

A couple of activists who heard about the media tours Tuesday stood outside the center to offer their perspective. They hung a banner that read "NOT 1 MORE DEPORTATION."

"They know they have a really bad PR nightmare on their hands," said Maru Mora-Villalpando, an undocumented immigrant-rights activist who has long opposed the detention center.

"I think it shows that we're doing an amazing job in bringing light to all these violations of human rights, all this violence that people are going through," she said. "Because deportation is violence against our communities.

A Seattle native and former knkx intern, Simone Alicea has returned to the Pacific Northwest from covering breaking news at the Chicago Sun-Times. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.
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