Why NWDC should remain in Tacoma

May 8, 2017

To Mayor Marilyn Strickland
and other City Council Members,
Re: Ordinance No. 28429

AID NW believes that an important voice has been missing from the ongoing conversations about possible actions targeting the viability of the Northwest Detention Center. We worry that legitimate concerns about the overuse and abuse of detention for immigrants are preventing people from seeing the complex reality behind this federal system. A reality in which the target for reform needs to be the federal government. While the city council can – and should – play a powerful role in preventing people from entering the immigration detention system through support of strong sanctuary policies limiting cooperation with ICE agents, removing the center from Tacoma will not prevent the detention of immigrants. Indeed, given the vibrant history of civic engagement that has grown up around the Northwest Detention center, actions targeting closure or preventing improvements to detention conditions may cause people to be detained in far worse situations with much less support.

The President is determined to increase immigrant detention. In the short term, that means beds in city or county jails, which have less oversight and fewer legal and social services, or in rural, remote locations such as Lumpkin, Georgia, the “black hole of the immigration system,” where the detained population (1,700) rivals the population of the town (1,400). Compare that with the Northwest Detention Center where there a vibrant civic society developed around the institution.

“To welcome the stranger,” the late Cal Uomoto, Director of World Relief – Seattle, met with Sigrun Freeman, the immigrant outreach coordinator for Northwest Leadership Foundation of Tacoma, in the Spring of 2004, in anticipation of the need for more volunteers to provide religious and spiritual support to the 500 immigrants soon to be detained in a new facility in the Tacoma tide flats.

By November 2005, the meetings of leaders of faith-based communities at the Foundation had expanded to include representatives of legal and social service agencies serving immigrants, congressional office liaisons, as well as individual citizens wanting to become involved. In 2009, the meeting participants recognized the need for a formal structure in which to centralize the programs providing direct services to detained immigrants. With a mission to serve immigrants in detention in the Pacific Northwest through assistance, advocacy and increased awareness, AID NW’s direct assistance includes phone access funds to indigent immigrants, donated books and magazines for circulation in the PODs, community visitors for isolated immigrants, a Welcome Center providing safe release services and post-release benefit information, short-term transitional housing, and referrals for access to other available resources in the community. See website at https://aidnw.org/

In the greater-Tacoma community, these resources include the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Tacoma Community House, Catholic Community Services, the Guadalupe House, the Asylee Assistance Program of Lutheran Community Service Northwest (LCS NW) and the Match Grant Program of World Relief (Refugee Resettlement Agencies,) medical care for both the insured and uninsured, and a myriad of organizations providing food and clothing assistance and home furnishings. All of these organizations join together to provide a true welcome to immigrants, like EB, in starting (or in re-starting) their new lives in the U.S.

After seven months in detention at the NWDC, last March, EB was granted political asylum by a Tacoma Immigration Judge. AID NW provided direct assistance for five weeks after his release, including filing for his work documents. LCS NW helped him file petitions for his wife and four children. EB then moved to an east coast city to live near extended family members. But, he never forgot his time in Tacoma and, when he received the approval notices for his family to join him, EB immediately contacted AID NW and LCS NW to ask for help in resettling his family here. They arrived at SeaTac Airport on April 18th. His children are enrolling in Tacoma public schools and his wife is eagerly awaiting the start of her ESL classes at Tacoma Community House this month. EB’s memory of a warm Tacoma welcome and his desire to have his family experience the same is not unique. Hundreds of immigrants have similar stories.

In the past twelve months, the AID NW post-detention Welcome Center was visited by 811 immigrants and 327 family members, friends, attorneys and other supporters.

In both its advocacy and its goal of increased awareness, AID NW recognizes that human rights abuses and injustice are endemic in immigrant detention. However, closing the detention center in Tacoma or preventing improvements to its conditions will not address those problems — and may make them worse.

We should not fool ourselves: Closing the Northwest Detention Center or preventing its operators from making improvements to conditions may lead to greater isolation from family and community, limitations on religious freedom, less access to services and weaker advocacy for detainees. Shipping pain and suffering elsewhere is a ‘Not In My Back Yard’ response that will not address detention issues. If we want change, rather than a false sense of clean hands, we must focus on how people get funneled into the system and how they are treated.

William E Tudor, Chair
AID NW Board of Directors