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WAREHOUSED: Women’s service at the Northwest Detention Center.
Photo by J.C. Derrick
WAREHOUSED: Women’s service at the Northwest Detention Center.

Detention contention

Immigration | Already controversial, the nation’s immigrant detention system is bursting at the seams with only growth in sight

Issue: "Into thin air," Aug. 23, 2014

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.”

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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.”

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