TACOMA, Wash.—The 96-year-old Port of Tacoma features crisscrossing railroad tracks, warehouses, and sparsely traveled roads. Thirty miles south of Seattle and amid that maze sits a large, drab structure—one that wouldn’t be distinguishable if not for the barbed wire and weathered concrete sign emblazoned: Northwest Detention Center.
This 277,000-square-foot complex has been Martha Navarro’s home since August 2013. She lives in an all-white, two-person cell with a stainless steel sink and lidless toilet, a small table jutting out from the wall, and a coat rack with four pegs. She earns $1 a day in the work program.
Sitting in a tight attorney-client conference room, a bespectacled Navarro, 38, told me about her mother sending her to the United States in 1991, being smuggled across the Mexico border into Texas, and realizing on the way that she “didn’t come in the right way.” That became even more evident when she arrived in Tacoma to live with her aunt: The promised “better life” didn’t include school but instead immediately finding a job. Those are hard to come by for a 15-year-old without papers: “The decision they made was really bad.”
Navarro was deported in 1998 but returned immediately because “back then it was so easy to come back.” Her only other offense in 23 years came in 2013, when driving with a suspended license got her arrested.
The federal government spends about $2 billion annually to detain immigrants such as Navarro. Many are convicted criminals, but many others are not: Some entered the country legally and others are seeking asylum. Though thousands will eventually win their cases and stay in the United States, they may face weeks, months, or years in one of more than 250 detention facilities nationwide. That reality, coupled with the recent wave of migrants from Central America, is sparking increased scrutiny and calls for alternatives.
The explosion of immigrant detention is a relatively new phenomenon: Detention was uncommon as recently as the 1980s. Immigration authorities held about 6,000 persons per day in 1994, but now the daily average has ballooned to some 34,000—roughly 400,000 annually. According to the American Bar Association, 84 percent have no legal representation.
The Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in late July housed 1,474 immigrants, making it one of the largest detention facilities in the country. This year it’s been the site of public protests and media attention after hundreds of detainees staged a rolling hunger strike to protest food quality, medical care, high prices at the commissary, and the work program. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and detention center staff placed instigators in administrative segregation, akin to solitary confinement, to end the 56-day strike.
ICE spokesman Andrew Muñoz told me the agency “respects the rights of all people to express their opinion without interference,” but the intervention was “deemed necessary due to reports of detainee-on-detainee intimidation and an escalation in disruptive behavior.” GEO Group, the private corporation that owns and operates the NWDC, declined my request for an interview but in an emailed statement insisted its facilities “adhere to strict contractual requirements and standards set by ICE.”
Complaints of detention conditions are not new, but Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who represents Tacoma in Congress, credits the NWDC kerfuffle with bringing the issues to his attention. After visiting detainees during the hunger strike, Smith in May filed the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act, a bill that would, among other things, create a rule-making committee comprised of immigrant advocate groups, medical experts, and local governments. ICE currently creates and enforces its own rules.
“Because there is no independent oversight or accountability, abuse occurs in secrecy,” said Christina Fialho, the co-executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). It operates visitation programs in 32 detention centers. Fialho said the way volunteers gain access “varies drastically,” depending on standards at local, state, federal, or private facilities.
Critics say private prisons, which control more than half of all detention beds, are driving the bloated system: The two largest, GEO and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), generate about $1.5 billion annually and lobbied for a 2009 congressional regulation that mandated ICE detain at least 33,400 persons daily. Since then, GEO and CCA stocks have risen from around $15 per share to more than $35 per share. “You shouldn’t be incentivizing the detention of people,” Smith told me. “Either they need to be detained or they don’t. They shouldn’t be detained because you’ve got to hit some minimum.”
Detainees can leave whenever they want—by dropping their cases and agreeing to deportation. But most pursue legal avenues to stay in the United States, often resulting in long detainments for those with strong cases. Nazry Mustakim came legally to the United States from Singapore with his mother and siblings in 1992. Thirteen years later, he was arrested on a drug possession charge. His plea bargain included 10 years’ probation and a rehab program. Mustakim, a nonpracticing Muslim, went to Mission Waco (Texas) to fulfill his rehabilitation requirement, but he later professed faith in Christ, earned a job, and in 2010 married a U.S. citizen. He was the poster child for Mission Waco, which featured him on billboards: “I was on meth. Now I’m on the payroll.”
At 6 a.m. on March 30, 2011, the Mustakims answered an unexpected knock on the front door. It was ICE. Within 24 hours, Mustakim was 250 miles away at the South Texas Detention Complex, a GEO-operated facility in Pearsall, Texas. He was held without charges or bond for 313 days. “You feel like a bird in a cage,” Mustakim told me in a Skype interview. “I didn’t see grass for 10 months.” Since detainees aren’t allowed contact visits, Nazry recalls knocking on a glass window so his wife, Hope, could have some physical contact with him.
The Mustakims learned that Nazry’s drug offense, while not an aggravated felony in criminal law, qualifies as an aggravated felony in immigration law. Even as a green card holder, the conviction made him not only deportable, but it put him into a category of mandatory detention. It took 12 court dates and Hope’s nonstop advocacy to secure his release, which they say cost them about $45,000 in legal fees, phone bills, and lost income.
In interviews with several lawmakers, I found bipartisan agreement that detention is necessary for two categories of noncitizens: Dangerous criminals, and those who pose a flight risk. Immigration judges are best suited to make those determinations, but Congress, through a series of laws approved since 1988, has largely taken away judges’ discretionary power, creating categories of people who are automatically detained. Through June, only 11.2 percent of new filings in immigration courts sought to deport noncitizens based on criminal activity, according to ICE data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
One category of mandated detention is asylum-seekers—potential refugees whose claims haven’t been verified—who can wait months or years for an assessment of credible fear. In June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a five-year initiative to make worldwide detention a rare occurrence, rather than standard practice, especially for refugees and asylum-seekers. “Detaining asylum-seekers for the sole reason of having entered without prior authorisation [sic] runs counter to international law,” the report says. “Individuals have the right to seek asylum, and if they do so, to be treated humanely and with dignity.”
Yet the UNHCR also notes an efficient national asylum system is key, otherwise the process is susceptible to false claims. That’s a critical caveat for an undersized U.S. immigration court system buried in backlog (see “System overload,” Aug. 19). Some immigrants manipulate the system, using asylum claims as a legal maneuver to prolong their stays: One detainee I met filed recently for asylum because he said the drug cartel killed his father in 2007—which was after he’d been deported three times for illegal entry.
The latest flow of immigrants to the Southern border, many seeking asylum from Central American violence, only complicates matters. Congressional Republicans scoffed at President Obama’s $3.7 billion funding request—a chunk of which is designated for detention costs—to deal with the influx of migrants, but the administration is still moving forward with plans to expand detention. It has used nontraditional facilities, such as Fort Sill military post in Oklahoma, to hold immigrants, despite vehement opposition from local lawmakers in both parties. In July, GEO Group, which secured $240 million in ICE contracts last year, inked a deal to open the nation’s first private family detention center in Artesia, N.M.
Long wait times to adjudicate cases, even for those who will eventually be deported, only increases the need for detention alternatives. Again, I found bipartisan agreement: Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., who serves on the Committee on Homeland Security’s border security subcommittee, was one of eight Republicans who last year voted for a Democratic amendment to kill the bed mandate. Marino, a former prosecutor, told me he thinks ICE should detain as many people as necessary, but he’s in favor of alternatives, such as electronic monitoring, for those who don’t pose a national security threat: “I’m open to anything that is going to improve efficiency.”
On a recent Sunday evening, several vehicles park on the street outside Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center. Seven persons file into the complex toting guitars and Bibles—but no cameras, wallets, or keys. They’re from Guatemala, Indonesia, the Philippines, Ukraine, Singapore, and South Korea, speak many languages but specialize in “bad English.”
The volunteers work their way through security and the eight locked doors that separate detainees from the outside world. At 6 p.m., it’s time for church. One hundred and twenty-six women, about 80 percent of the facility’s female population, enter the room wearing yellow uniforms and smiles. For many, this is the highlight of their week.
After singing songs in different languages, the preaching commences. Maria Ruiz delivers a fiery message in Spanish, while Rolando Lariosa speaks to an English breakout group: “I don’t like to see a Bible that looks brand new. If you see a dilapidated Bible, you will see a clean life.”
At the end of the women’s service, 35 women stand, hands raised, as Ruiz leads them in a salvation prayer. Later, at the end of the next service, 20 men do the same—many of them dressed in red uniforms signifying a high threat level.
“Sometimes we only get one opportunity,” volunteer Sherry Soepardjos said. “There’s no time to wait to tell them they are a sinner.”
The so-called “International Christian Church” began in 2000 as an outreach to Chinese immigrants who illegally arrived in the United States aboard shipping containers. Cal Uomoto, then the director of World Relief’s Seattle office, recruited Jonathan and Sherry Soepardjo to minister to the immigrants in their native language.
Over the last 14 years, the ministry—supported by local volunteers and donations—has grown to include eight weekly services in numerous languages. Their numbers continue to grow: Last year more than 15,000 detainees attended and 3,257 made professions of faith in Christ.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) eventually deports about 80 percent of the detainees, so the Soepardjos have seen converts become gospel witnesses around the world. One of the original Chinese immigrants from 2000 was deported in 2004 and later moved to Ecuador, where he started a church. Today his church attracts about three-dozen Chinese Christians, and sometimes Jonathan Soepardjo preaches to them via Skype.
Sherry Soepardjo said church attendance at the Northwest Detention Center has doubled since they began allowing detainees to have their own Bibles in 2011. Donations have struggled to keep up with heavy demand, especially for Spanish-language Bibles. She said reading the Bible is how some detainees have learned read.
“It’s amazing,” said Obed Bautista, 21, who was detained in August 2013 and leads a Bible study with 35 men. “I never read the Bible before, and now God has given me the chance to be a leader.”
World Relief Seattle is in the process of expanding the ministry to include detainee families and post-release support. Currently, volunteers disciple detained Bible study leaders monthly—as a breakout session during a service—but organizers are looking for 50 new volunteers to launch a visitation program that would provide one-on-one discipleship.
Detainees are allowed one 45-minute visit per day, which Dan Samuelson, director of World Relief Seattle, said offers virtually unlimited growth potential. He calls the program “reverse missions,” saying when detainees return to their home countries they can do so as mature believers: “They go back with the potential to impact their country for Christ.”
World Relief, part of the National Association of Evangelicals, on a national level advocates for immigration reform and more alternatives to detention, but Samuelson said his group is dealing with the current reality. “There’s a large group of people living in the netherworld,” he told me. “It’s tragic that the vast majority of the believing community doesn’t know detention centers exist.” —J.C.D.