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After detention, this organization welcomes and guides immigrants

A white craftsman house at dusk with the windows lit up.
Parker Miles Blohm
The hospitality house in Tacoma run by AIDNW where immigrants released from the ICE detention center stay.

It’s a drizzly, cold day. Mya Schultz and other volunteers with Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest are doing their best to stay warm inside the tents propped up outside the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma.

In addition to a small portable heater, there’s snacks and signs in a dozen languages hanging on the walls to make it clear Seattle-Tacoma International is the nearest airport.

A young woman bundled up in a sweatshirt and flannel shirt crosses her arms and smiles.
Parker Miles Blohm
Mya Schultz is the volunteer coordinator for AIDNW.

"One time, someone came out of the detention center with a plane ticket from like Washington, D.C. to, you know, Miami or wherever. But from Washington, D.C., and they didn't realize that they were in Tacoma, Washington," said Mya Schultz, the organization's volunteer coordinator.

The RV parked beside the tents is supplied with WiFi hot spots, phones to use, lists of shelters and translators, and seasonal clothing. Schultz explained people detained in the summer might be released in the winter without a sweater or coat.

"As you can probably tell by the amount of women's clothes compared to men's clothes, it's much more common to get men over women," she said.

Almost every day, people from all over the world try to find their footing after being released from the immigration detention center in Tacoma. An RV parked outside and a hospitality house in south Tacoma give them a place to go.

Some of those released have been granted asylum or have had their immigration case resolved in some other way; others must return to an immigration court at a later date. Bonds cost immigrants thousands of dollars.

In 2021, Washington state lawmakers hoping to shut down the facility, passed a private prison ban.GEO Group, the company that runs the facility, promptly sued the state over the new law. Earlier this year, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling involving a similar California law rendered Washington's law as unenforceable.

Schultz and other volunteers routinely explain what they’re doing there to visitors who approach them.

"We help people who are released from the detention center. We help them get in contact with their families and make travel plans, stuff like that. We also have a house that they can stay at," Schultz said to a visitor.

"I have a brother that is here," the visitor responded. "I'm gonna go see him today."

The volunteers try to avoid asking a lot of questions, but do learn a few things about the person looking for his brother.

The visitor’s name is Alex. He lives in Issaquah. Somehow his brother got picked up in Blaine, Washington, near the Canadian border.

"I'm trying to get him out. I don't know how. I’m trying to get a lawyer but they charge me $1,500," he told Schultz.

Schultz gave Alex a list of immigration attorneys.

Deborah Cruz is the executive director of AIDNW. While other activists focus on what they describe as the abusive conditions of detention centers, Cruz said the help they’ve provided for more than a decade is made possible in part through their close relationship with immigration officials.

"We don't think that detention should be a thing. But we are here, because detention is here," she said.

A man in an orange t-shirt and jeans sits on the front steps of a porch with plants by his side.
Parker Miles Blohm
Frankling Mercado, the host coordinator at the hospitality house run by AIDNW, in south Tacoma on November 14, 2023.

Frankling Mercado’s job at AIDNW is welcoming guests to the nonprofit’s hospitality house in south Tacoma. Some of those released from the detention center with no family nearby go there. Mercado explained there are rules: no drugs or alcohol, no fighting. Men are expected to stay away from the women’s quarters.

Mercado was himself a guest in the house when he first arrived in the U.S. in 2018.

He left his home country of Nicaragua because he feared retaliation after participating in the protests against President Daniel Ortega.

"They wanted to take out the government. I was one of the ones who was in the streets yelling at the government, causing chaos,” Mercado said in Spanish.

An immigration judge eventually granted him asylum.

Amanuel Tedla, a recent arrival at the house, shared a similar story. He’s from Eritrea. He said he suffered religious persecution there.

Today Mercado considers his job with AIDNW a calling.

"I used to wonder why so many bad things had happened in my country but now I realize all the bad has served the good," he said.  

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to