I must begin this by saying that while I felt I was more informed about immigration than perhaps many people, I still had room to grow, and grow I did yesterday in my experience of visiting the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, a facility under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, specifically Immigration & Customs Enforcement. It is a facility in my own backyard, so to speak, that was built in 2004 to hold up to 700 people, and was doubled in 2007 and can hold up to 1,500 people. It is one of some 350 detention centers across the US, and all but eight are run by for-profit prison corporations. The NW Detention Center in Tacoma serves the west coast of the United States, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.
The first factoid that made my hackles raise, I’ll admit, was realizing that while the facility is the property of the Department of Homeland Security, it is administered by a for-profit private prison corporation, GEO Group – which also runs the Migrant Operations Center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is the second largest for-profit prison operator in the country, and operates 50 facilities in 16 states.
According to the fact sheet I received (put together by the Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service and the Washington New Sanctuary Movement), here are some informative factoids regarding the issues around immigration and detention:
- Immigration detention refers to the institutional housing of non-citizens by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Despite the civil nature of immigration detention, DHS uses a combinations of its own facilities, federal Bureau of Prisons facilities, and privatized prisons to detain non-citizens. DHS also rents bed from…local and county jails where detainees are mixed with the local prison’s inmate population. Following the prison model, [within DHS facilities] movement is restricted and detainees are often required to wear prison uniforms.
- Any non-citizen who arrives at the border seeking asylum or violates civil immigration regulations may be held in detention while the immigration courts review their cases.
- The current detention system wrongly presumes that all non-citizens subject to detention pose a threat to national security and public safety. In fact, the vast majority of people in detention pose no security threat.
- Under human rights law, detention should only be used when necessary – and it is only necessary when a) the government demonstrates that the individual poses either a threat to security or a risk of fleeing, and b) there is no alternative means to manage the risk(s).
One in five American families is of ‘mixed’ status, with US citizens, legal permanent residents and undocumented family members in one household. Many undocumented individuals pay their taxes, are law-abiding citizens, and give back to their communities. That said, how does one fall into detention? I must admit, none of the stories I heard the other day made me all that inclined to believe that the system we currently have really works all that well. A church on Vashon Island, WA recounted how many of its members are friends with a young lady currently in detention, a Swedish national, who was in the US on a student visa. She overstayed it as she was in hiding from her American citizen boyfriend, who had become violent against her. He found out her location, called INS, and she was found and has been detained ever since.
I had the chance to talk at some length with a young man named Cesar, who came from Mexico around 4 or 5 years of age, and has been since living in western Washington. He is 19 now, Dream Act eligible, and recently received a parking ticket. The address on his license was different than where he lived – as someone who has recently moved, I had the same situation with my ID card for quite a while – and didn’t receive the necessary information about his court date in time. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest, and police arrested him at his home in front of his family. Upon asking why he was being arrested, they told him “I don’t know; you can find out today in court.” He was detained for three days before a court date was available, and upon completion of his appearance at court, he was informed that Immigration & Customs Enforcement had a hold for him, due to his status as an undocumented immigrant. He was detained for two and a half months at the facility in Tacoma, having to deal with miles of bureaucracy and red tape any time he sought more information about his pending court date regarding his status – he would ask the guards at the facility (again, run by GEO), who would tell him that they had nothing to do with it; he had to ask ICE. He would go through the protocol in seeking information from ICE – paperwork which was often misplaced, had to be filed again, endless waiting – and often received a similar response from ICE, and that he should ask the staff at the detention center.
Cesar said that the youngest person he met while in detention was 16, and the oldest he recalled meeting was 78. Furthermore, while many people may think that the face of undocumented immigrants in America is a Latino one, Cesar negated this, saying that there were people of all nationalities. As a Spanish-speaker, though, he sought to try and help those for whom English was a struggle. While he said that some guards were nice, there were some that seemed to have little patience – upon dealing with a man who didn’t speak any English, Cesar translated for the other person, saying that the man didn’t speak any English. The guard’s response? “Well that’s not my problem.”
As in prison, official movements – from even just one cell to the neighboring – involved the process of shackling hands (behind the back) and feet, with guards on either side. To contact anyone outside of the facility is a process which involves buying a phone card from the facility, and one has to have money added to the card to make any calls.
Cesar was able to contact his family and friends outside, who worked tirelessly to gather information from his school, church, and employers to testify and share letters of recommendation to show his character, and illustrate his willingness to continue being a productive, law-abiding member of society. Finally Cesar received a court date and was able to bond himself out of detention – days shy of his 19th birthday this February of 2012. He was one of the lucky ones, in detention for just shy of three months, though there are others who have been in detention for years. Detention, aside from the red tape and bureaucracy mentioned earlier, also entails further work if it appears that the individual will be deported. Deportation is an involved process which depends on the relationship the United States has with the country, if that country will accept such individuals, and innumerable other complications. I heard a story of another young man who was originally from Cuba, but escaped with his family at a young age. In detention, he asked why on earth he would go back to a country in which he had no family and no further connections – and deportation was further complicated by the fact that the United States does not currently have diplomatic relations with Cuba.
I admit, there is still much I have to learn, and not ever story is the same – but my main concern with the system as it is, is simply that the workings of the system seem completely disinterested with the stories of the individuals which it attempts to treat as profits and statistics – detention and deportation are serious issues, and it bothers me that too many people view someone in detention as less of a person than someone who can take their American citizenship for granted. Simply because someone is undocumented does not make them a criminal, more liable to become one, nor does it denigrate the quality of life they deserve or the work they can perform. It does not mean that they deserve less pay than a citizen or legal resident, or that there is anything innately wrong about them.
If you are interested in further information, here are some links which might be of interest: KUOW’s special: Between Worlds, Behind Bars – National Network for Immigrant & Refugee Rights – Northwest Immigrant Rights Project