The complicated world of immigration law

Staff writerSeptember 9, 2012 

Oscar Campos Estrada’s deportation case illustrates some of the complexities of U.S. immigration laws.

Generally, any person who has entered the United States without going through customs; who has been illegally employed here; or who has failed to always keep lawful permanent residency is subject to deportation.

But there are legal exceptions, and that’s where Oscar will seek to fight his removal, said Amy Kratz, Oscar’s immigration lawyer.

The man who came to this country as a teenager, raised a family here and has since spent more than half of his life in Pierce County could seek an “exceptional hardship” waiver to remain in the United States, Kratz said.

But going that route requires a persuasive showing. Kratz would have to prove someone connected to Oscar – a resident, spouse or child – would suffer at least one in a range of adverse conditions meeting the law’s eligibility criteria.

In Oscar’s case, “the hardship is obvious,” Kratz said. He’s father of four American children, ranging in ages from 3 to 19.

“The kids love their father. They don’t want to be without him. They depend on him financially and emotionally,” Kratz said. “But the law says that’s not exceptional hardship, that’s typical hardship.”

An applicant who seeks a hardship waiver generally must meet a higher threshold, such as proving the life of a loved one with a chronic medical condition would be endangered if the applicant was deported.

“The threshold is very, very high,” Kratz said.

Oscar likely will try a different route. In 1992 and again in 1998, Oscar’s green card-holding father petitioned on his then-unmarried son’s behalf for permanent residency eligibility. The applications eventually won approval, meaning Oscar was in line to seek and obtain a green card.

But later that same year, when Oscar married Maria-Guadalupe, his longtime girlfriend and mother of his children, their legal union invalidated Oscar’s petitions.

“The only thing he did wrong to ruin his eligibility was to get married,” Kratz said. “Had he not gotten married, he’d have a green card by now.”

Kratz will argue Oscar’s case warrants discretion.

“It could go either way. If he loses and gets deported, there’s a 10-year bar from coming back legally, unless the consulate in Juarez grants him a waiver.”

But in late September 2011, Kratz’s first order of business was getting bond set for Oscar and getting him out of the Northwest Detention Center. Oscar had been held there since August, after serving a four-month jail term for driving with a suspended license.

“All bonds set on these cases are unnecessarily high,” Kratz said. “They’re supposed to look at whether someone’s a flight risk or a danger to the community. And if they’re not, why are they being detained at all? But what we’re hoping for really is a lower amount. Fifteen hundred would be doable.”

A low bond amount could prove crucial for Oscar’s future, Kratz said. If a judge refused to set bond, or set it too high, Oscar’s removal proceedings would begin within a matter of weeks at the detention center. And most in-custody hearings result in deportation.

But if Oscar got out, his case would be moved to the court’s out-of-custody calendar in Seattle, where the backlog to get a court hearing stretches for months.

The extra time could buy Oscar permanent residency in the U.S., Kratz said.

The longer his case drags out, the more likely he can submit another petition for a green card. In a year and a half, Oscar’s daughter, America – a citizen by virtue of her birth here – will turn 21. Once she does, she can submit a green card eligibility petition on her father’s behalf under family-sponsored eligibility rules. Oscar’s petition could be approved before his deportation case is resolved. If it is, Kratz said, Oscar may be eligible to stay in the U.S. during the long waiting period it will take for him to officially become eligible to apply for a green card.

But the key was getting Oscar out of the Northwest Detention Center.

“Nobody wants to put their case on in detention,” Kratz said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s expensive. You have to gather a lot of evidence and you don’t have as much access (to your client). If we can get him out of there, life would be so much easier – for his case and for his family.”

VIDEO: OSCAR'S STORY

FINANCING THE EXPANSION

Two years after self-financing the expansion of the Northwest Detention Center to help win a new federal contract, a global private prison empire obtained a $54.4 million state-aided bond loan to refinance that project.

The GEO Group received funds to reimburse its expansion costs from taxable nonrecourse bonds issued by the Washington Economic Development Finance Authority, a state program started primarily to help create manufacturing jobs for small and medium-sized businesses but later expanded to allow other projects.

WEDFA, which brokered the bond deal in late 2011, made several exceptions and finessed a typical requirement to help GEO obtain the special financing. By setting aside the usual requirement for a “local planning jurisdiction approval” – in this case, a statement of support from the City of Tacoma – WEDFA helped the private prison contractor meet financing conditions.

In turn, the deal brought a big pay day for WEDFA – an unfunded, two-person state agency that relies on fees from the deals it brokers to cover its $275,000 annual budget.

The transaction – the fourth largest in WEDFA’s 22-year history – was only the second deal aided by the finance authority in 2011. Closed in December, the transaction garnered nearly $136,300 in service fees for WEDFA, helping make the authority’s budget for the year.

“That’s the only money we get – from fee income,” said Rodney Wendt, a finance lawyer who makes about $108,000 per year as WEDFA’s executive director.

But Wendt noted the deal was sound and met requirements to his satisfaction.

“I feel like this was a first-rate transaction,” he said. “I would say that if the exact issues came up with a $2 million manufacturing facility, we’d be making the same efforts.”

It was the second big bond issue WEDFA had brokered for the Northwest Detention Center. In 2003, GEO’s predecessor in Tacoma – the Correctional Services Corp. – used the reduced-cost state-aided financing to build the original 156,000-square foot facility. The 10-year bond issue saved the federal prison contractor more than a half million dollars in interest payments, according to estimates.

Four years later, when GEO expanded the facility by 105,000 square feet to help win a lucrative new contract, the company initially didn’t seek the state’s help. But in 2011, GEO came back to WEDFA seeking refinancing for the two-year-old expansion.

The reduced-cost, $54.4 million bond issue by WEDFA offered GEO a low-interest, fixed rate loan through 2018. It also saved the company borrowing costs, with an interest rate about 1.5 percent lower than comparable loans, Wendt said.

Estimating exactly how much the 2011 transaction will save GEO in the long run would likely be “misleading,” Wendt said, though he said it likely is more than $500,000.

For WEDFA, GEO’s application posed several challenges. The prison company’s triple B credit rating – a by-product of the inherent risks of the controversial private prison industry – fell below the authority’s typical underwriting standards.

But GEO planned to get bond insurance – not available through commercial loans – that would raise its rating to within standards and create additional borrowing cost savings.

Unlike in 2003, when a Tacoma city councilman acting on his own issued a letter to WEDFA purporting the city’s “continued support” for the facility, no such formal statement of local support existed for financing the detention center expansion.

Wendt tried to obtain a statement of support from the city. In August 2011, he sent a pre-drafted resolution to Tacoma’s then-assistant economic development director Martha Anderson.

“It is the policy of the WEDFA board only to issue bonds in support of projects that would be welcomed by the local community,” Wendt wrote. “As part of the issuance process, therefore, we would like the Tacoma City Council, as the planning jurisdiction, to consider passage of a Planning Jurisdiction Approval Resolution, in form substantially attached.”

Anderson replied such a resolution would take time and stir controversy.

“I told him I could take it to the council, but don’t expect it to sail through,” she said. “There’d likely be a lot of citizen opposition.”

Because the bond transaction amounted to refinancing an old project, “there really weren’t any new jobs created,” Anderson added.

But when Wendt presented the project to his board of directors, he gave a different view about job creation. The detention center’s expansion had occurred two years earlier, but Wendt calculated the 146 jobs created then as “new positions.”

“The facility’s expansion is what caused the job expansion,” he said. “That’s what WEDFA was financing.”

By then, Wendt had dropped his pursuit of a formal statement of support from the city. Instead, a GEO executive informed Wendt in a Nov. 15, 2011 email that the company hoped to submit “two awareness letters from local politicians within the next week.”

The company gave a tour of the detention center to Connie Ladenburg and Laurie Jinkins, two freshman Democratic state representatives whose districts included parts of Tacoma.

Jinkins later sent a thank-you letter to GEO’s warden for the tour. It cited her “serious concerns” about national immigration policy, adding “the mere existence of your facility does not represent the civil rights orientation I want our nation to have.”

But Jinkins also acknowledged the detention center’s economic contributions to her district, including $16 million in payroll taxes, $2.2 million in property, sales and other taxes and $859,000 in local utility payments.

“Jobs and revenue are the priority during this Legislative cycle,” she wrote. “GEO’s contribution is meaningful.”

GEO later included Jinkins’ letter in its application for WEDFA financing as proof of local support.

During a recent interview, Jinkins recalled Joan Mell, an old law school classmate who represents GEO, reached out to her to set up the detention center tour. As part of it, Jinkins also later met with bond officials.

“It was a really weird meeting,” Jinkins said. “They said, ‘So, you’re really supportive of the detention center.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m really not.’”  

Jinkins said she doesn’t recall if GEO or WEDFA officials specifically asked her to write the letter, or whether anyone ever told her it would later be used to help GEO secure financing for its facility.

“I don’t know if I really realized that,” Jinkins said. “But I wrote the letter, so I guess they can use it how they want to.”

Likewise, Ladenburg didn’t recall being asked to write a letter, adding she didn’t write one nor would have, if asked.

“If they wanted a letter in favor of the expansion, I doubt I would write anything,” said Ladenburg, who sat on the City Council during GEO’s expansion of the detention center. “I wasn’t a big fan of that when they built it, to be honest. When they came to us originally, 10 or 12 years ago, they said it was only for 500 people. Now, its 1,500 people. We’ve basically got another prison in our community.”

Jinkins’ letter, along with the fact the city had issued construction permits for the expansion, likely was “sufficient” to satisfy WEDFA’s local support requirement, Wendt said.

“But the reality is that the local support that was most essential was the support that took place at the time that the original bond transaction was done (in 2003),” he added, “because that’s what sort of built the core of the facility.”

At the time, such support included a three-year-old nonbinding City Council resolution and a 2003 letter from Councilman Kevin Phelps, who wrote of Tacoma’s “continued support” for the project. But by then, the council had partly turned over and Tacoma’s new mayor opposed the detention center.

Still, WEDFA cited the letter again, eight years later, as proof of local support for the project.

When the authority’s board finally considered approval of the expansion refinancing in 2011, one board member – a representative of the state’s agriculture department – raised questions about negative press surrounding The GEO Group she found during a Google search.

The basic Internet search for GEO reveals a spotty track record for the company, with allegations of assaults, suicides, riots and at least one murder at some of GEO’s 114 facilities worldwide. A 2008 report alleging human rights violations at the Northwest Detention Center also readily pops up in search engine searches.

Wendt stressed it wasn’t the board’s place to weigh in on the controversies surrounding federal immigration policies.

“The important thing is this facility and project is good for economic development and provides high-quality jobs,” he told the panel.

The board later unanimously approved the transaction. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a resolution committing the proceeds from the deal to GEO.

A BOND, A CHALLENGE

Ten thousand dollars: Not the bond amount Oscar and his lawyer had hoped for.

“The judge cited his prior record for setting the high amount,” Kratz said. “I think it’s too high for us.”

The news came on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Oscar’s two school-age children woke at 6 a.m. and took off school to attend their father’s bond hearing. His oldest daughter, America, and her boyfriend, Arturo, picked the kids up on South Hill and drove them to the Northwest Detention Center so they could attend. Two of Oscar’s sisters – Odilia and Luisa Campos – also met them there, bringing their own children.

The extended family passed through a security checkpoint, then silently gathered in a crowded waiting room. Guards monitored a locked door that opened into a cinder block hallway leading to the in-custody courtrooms where detainees stand before judges.

But some of the family arrived late. They didn’t get to see Oscar being led into the courtroom with more than a dozen other brown-skinned men clad in blue uniforms. For the next hour, he and his lawyer waited for a hearing that was over in a matter of minutes.

Afterward, Oscar’s family conferred with the attorney. If the family couldn’t raise the money, she told them, Oscar would likely face a deportation hearing in about a month.

“I don’t know if we can afford it,” America said. “We’ll try to find the money somewhere.”

America quickly shifted her concerns to her father’s well-being.

“It’s horrible in there,” she said of the detention center. “It’s completely different than the actual jail. My dad says it was much better in jail. People looked out for each other. Here, it’s everyone for himself.”

Oscar’s sisters shook their heads about the prospects for raising their brother’s bond money. It’s a shame, they said. Oscar is the only one of four siblings now settled in Pierce County who doesn’t have a green card or citizenship, Odilia added.

“Oscar always worked so hard,” she said. “He’s just like our father. He always worked two or three jobs. He always put his family first. I hope we can get him out.”

If they couldn’t, Oscar’s odds weren’t good: On average, about 65 percent of immigrants held inside the Northwest Detention Center over the past four years have been deported.

NO WRITTEN AGREEMENTS

For eight years, the Northwest Detention Center has consistently violated a provision in its federal contract that calls for the facility to hold formal agreements with local governments about how to respond to certain emergencies.

City officials and administrators for the private prison contractor that run the detention center have known about the requirement for years, yet it remains unaddressed.

“The Contractor shall have written agreements with appropriate state and local authorities that will allow the Contractor to make requests for assistance in the event of any emergency incident that would adversely affect the community,” the federal contract states.

Such Memoranda of Understanding, or MOUs, are supposed to clearly spell out the roles and responsibilities – and cost-recovery protocols for them – for any special assistance or services provided by local government to the detention center during riots, catastrophes or other emergency events.

Such emergency situations aren’t merely theoretical. In 2007, more than 900 pounds vaporized of poisonous chlorine gas leaked from the Pioneer Americas bleach plant at the Port of Tacoma, sending at least 38 people to area hospitals. The lock-down detention center was just outside the evacuation zone designated for the potentially deadly gas plume.

Two years later, an uprising erupted inside the detention center. Guards used pepper-spray on detainees who refused to follow orders to go to bed. An ICE spokeswoman later reported no one was seriously injured.

Lowell Clark, a GEO employee and the detention center’s warden, said the facility has its contractually required emergency evacuation plan in place – in case of such events as a tsunami – but he declined to produce it or share details.

A corporate spokesman for GEO also has generally stated the facility “provides a safe and secure environment for its detainee population and staff.”

Interim Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan said records indicate the Fire Department reviewed an evacuation plan for the detention center in 2005, but the city doesn’t have a copy of the plan on record. In 2007, the Fire Department also conducted an evacuation drill there, Duggan said. But the chief added that GEO and his department have no formalized agreements.

The federal government did not provide The News Tribune with copies of any emergency plans or agreements for the facility in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act Request. A similar request made to the City of Tacoma drew a response that no such agreements exist.

They should.

Shortly before the detention center opened in 2004, Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell met with George Wigen, then a Correctional Services Corp. employee who worked as the facility’s first warden.

“According to Mr. Wigen, entering into an MOU with local jurisdictions is mandated by Immigration,” Ramsdell later wrote in an email to city officials.

“They are seeking the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to be secondary to us. Since the facility will be located within the City we will have primary responsibility to investigate crimes that occur within. Obviously, we do not know as of yet what the impacts will be.”

In April 2004, Wigen sent a draft agreement to the city’s legal department for review. It detailed “typical assistance” the contractor might need from the city while operating the detention center, including help from the Police Department’s bomb squad, K-9 team, hostage negotiators and help with disturbances, crowd control and officer training.

An assistant city attorney worked on the draft, and city fire and police officials assured council members at the time that the agreements would be put in place, records show. But they never were. City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said recently an assistant city attorney had exchanged several drafts with the prison contractor.

“But at some point, they stopped responding,” Pauli said. “The drafts just stopped being exchanged. And there’s no way we can force them into an agreement.”

Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer recently said the county has no agreements with GEO, either.

“We do not have a MOU or an agreement for any of that,” Troyer wrote in an email last month.

A spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently said the detention center’s current owner has tried to get written agreements with the city in place.

“Each year, The GEO Group sends an official correspondence to fulfill that contract obligation,” spokesman Andrew Munoz said. “But so far, they’ve done it without any success.”

Pauli said she isn’t aware of any such letters.

“I certainly haven’t seen or received them,” she said.

As of this month, a city-wide public records request was unable to find any letters from GEO citing the contract provision.

Earlier this year, Tacoma Fire Chief Ron Stephens estimated it cost his department about $60,000 in 2011 to respond to basic calls for service to the Northwest Detention Center – mostly due to false fire alarms and emergency medical calls.

Likewise, Tacoma police have responded to the detention center 103 times from 2007 to 2011, including for various calls of assaults, sex offenses, suicide attempts and demonstrations.

Conversations about recapturing costs borne by the city have been raised time and again since the detention facility opened eight years ago. But such discussions mostly have gone nowhere.

After Stephens’ statements earlier this year, city staff analyzed ways to recapture public safety costs, including imposing a special tax or regulatory license fee on “private for-profit prisons.” But staffers concluded the city’s options were limited and would recoup only a fraction of the costs anyway.

Creating a special fee similar to the one Tacoma imposes on hotels would generate less than $900 per year from the Northwest Detention Center. The city couldn’t single out the facility to impose or raise any other regulatory fees – say for false fire alarms or annual building inspections – without doing the same to some other businesses.

“When we get into regulatory fees, we have to be very careful in terms of what we’re regulating and to be fair,” Assistant City Manager Tansy Hayward said.

Some city officials, including Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Deputy Mayor Joe Lonergan, have expressed caution about potentially singling out a business that’s a proven financial asset to city coffers.

Last year, GEO paid more than $1.1 million in annual property taxes on its East J Street site, assessed in 2012 at about $72 million. The City of Tacoma estimates the facility also generated about $160,000 in annual business and occupation tax revenues in 2011.

Police and fire responses provided to the detention center in recent years have involved only basic services that any citizen or business in Tacoma would get, public safety officials said. The provision in the federal contract that calls for the detention center to have written agreements aims to deal with larger-scale emergencies.

It’s true the contract provision remains unaddressed, Hayward said. But she noted GEO “is not accountable to (the city) for this contract,” but to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Munoz, the ICE spokesman, said that because “GEO is making a good-faith effort of fulfilling that (contractual) obligation” -- by routinely sending letters city officials say don’t exist -- his agency is satisfied.

Meantime, city police and fire officials are open to working with GEO on such emergency planning, Hayward said.

Duggan, the interim fire chief who took over after Stephens’ recent retirement, said he plans to invite detention center officials into discussions about implementing a planned “early warning system” for evacuating the port area. But that system isn’t meant as a warning beacon for the locked-down facility, he added. It’s meant to warn people who may be outdoors, working or driving in the area when an emergency strikes, he said.

City officials insist Tacoma has done all it can within its limited authority over the years to address an “essential public facility” that largely falls outside of its jurisdiction.

But to activist Tim Smith, the neglected contract requirement is a leverage point the city can use to demand more accountability.

“The bottom line concern is: How do we get 1,500 people off the Tideflats in a lahar,” said Smith, referring to one risk in a long list facing the detention center.

Smith, who leads the Bill of Right Defense Committee-Tacoma activist group that routinely protests at the detention center, contends the city hasn’t done enough to find out how GEO plans to save hundreds of detainees and employees should catastrophe strike.

“Until we know what their plan is, I don’t think we should stop (asking questions),” he said.

GETTING OUT

At daybreak on a gray morning in late September 2011, Cesar Campos Estrada shivered on a sidewalk outside the Northwest Detention Center, clutching an envelope containing his brother’s freedom.

“The whole family, friends, a lot of people pitched in,” the South Tacoma mechanic said. “You ask who you know; it’s a community thing. My oldest sister, Luisa, she came up with the most. But it was difficult. It’s a lot of money, $10,000.”

By fully raising Oscar’s bond in cash, the family avoided a bail-bond agency’s typically high surcharge and the hassle of signing over a home mortgage or credit card for security.

Cesar took the money and the morning off from work to bail out his big brother. At 7 a.m., he arrived at the detention center with the envelope and a false expectation.

The process would take maybe four hours, Cesar thought. Instead, a guard informed him he’d have to wait two hours before that process could even begin.

“I couldn’t get any information,” Cesar said. “I checked their website, I called again and again. ICE wasn’t helpful at all. So, I finally get here at 7, and they tell me it’s not open until 9.”

Cesar also learned the federal court accepted only cashier’s checks – not cash – for bond payments. Before Cesar left to find a bank, his niece, America, arrived to meet him. More than an hour later, the expectant mother explained that a bout with morning sickness caused her delay.

“We were going to take dad home and surprise the family,” she said. “They don’t know he’s getting bailed out today.”

Five months had passed since Oscar last embraced his children as a free man. His daughter had hoped he’d finally be able to do so once again that morning. But the bond process proved trickier than expected. The family reunion would have to wait.  

“Some things are worth waiting for,” America said.

'LIKE I’M ALIVE AGAIN'

Shortly after 4:30 p.m., an automatic gate jolted open and a group of men who in recent days had been known officially by serial numbers stepped onto a public sidewalk to reclaim their given names.

One by one, men’s names were shouted by voices in the crowd assembled past the fence line to greet them.

In a group assembled for a detainee named Oscar, Cesar saw his brother first.

There he is, he told his toddler nephew, Jasiel. There’s your papa!

With the deliberate steps of a 2-year old, the boy advanced toward a beaming man. Oscar steadily closed the gap.

His bear hug lifted a pair of small shoes from the earth, consummating father’s reunion with son. As the boy’s sobbing mother approached, Oscar fumbled a folder in his hands. Paperwork about his immigration case that he’d accumulated over several months fluttered to the ground. Oscar barely noticed.

“I feel like I’m alive again,” he said later.

The family headed to an apartment on Tacoma’s East Side, where Maria’s sister had put her and Jasiel up in Oscar’s absence. Without her boyfriend’s paycheck, Maria wasn’t able to keep up with rent at the family’s own apartment. She moved out and sold most of the couple’s possessions a month earlier.

Later that night and the next morning, Oscar would celebrate his freedom with other family members, including his three oldest children.

But the partying would be short-lived. With no income and two families to feed, Oscar needed to find work.

“My back’s against the wall,” he said.

INSIDE THE CENTER

Eight years after it opened, what initially was sold to Tacoma as a 500-bed facility has exploded into one of the largest federal immigration detention centers in the United States.

The Northwest Detention Center now ranks fourth nationally in “average daily population” of detainees among federal immigration detention facilities, trailing only centers in Texas, Georgia and Arizona.

It also rates in the top 3 percent in the U.S. for the number of immigrants it deports each year among more than 650 facilities used to detain unauthorized aliens.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said in a recent email that each of the facility’s expansions over the years have come for good reason.

“ICE determined that NWDC’s capacity was below mission needs,” an agency spokesman wrote.

During a tour of the center last year, a lawyer from the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project – a group that provides legal aid to immigrants in Washington – presented a “know your rights” lecture to eight detainees seated in molded plastic chairs in a cinder block room draped in fluorescent lighting.

In Spanish, the lawyer told detainees what to expect while in lock-up. For the first-timers, there would be a bond hearing in one of the three federal courtrooms on site, he said. Those who had been deported before won’t get a hearing, they’d simply be removed.

Most detainees facing deportation will get a chance to fight their removal – or acquiesce to it – during a formal merits hearing. If a judge ultimately orders deportation, the lawyer added, you’ll likely leave quickly: Two removal flights depart each week from Boeing Field, just up the freeway.

At the time, most of the flights were bound for Harlingen, a small Texas city on the Gulf Coast about 40 minutes north of the Mexican border. From there, detainees are bused to Brownsville, then dropped off to walk the final few hundred yards back into Mexico, through the gang-infested city of Matamoros.

A small percentage of detainees – a few dozen immigrants unable to post bond who opt to appeal their removals while in detention, or immigrants whose countries of citizenship won’t accept their return – have been held here for a year or longer, Lorie Dankers, then an ICE spokeswoman, said last year.

A convicted sex offender from Russia – a country that refuses to accept nationals convicted of certain offenses while abroad – has been held here for several years, one official confirmed.

Likewise, under a federal court ruling, illegal immigrants from Somalia can’t be removed because, with no functioning government, the war-torn nation can’t accept deportees, Dankers said. If they have no other pending offenses, Somali immigrants are typically processed and released, she said.

But on average, most detainees spend about 36 days here -- about 10 days more than the average length of stay in immigration lock-ups around the nation. On average, about 65 percent of them left the facility by deportation over the last four complete years. Most detainees – nearly 90 percent, according to a Justice Department report in 2007 – don’t have legal representation. Public defenders are not provided.

The deported detainees are quickly replaced by new arrivals, as America’s immigration enforcement wheel keeps turning. Nationwide, 30,000 immigrants are detained on any given day.

Such churn is what makes this place tick, noted Lowell Clark, who took over as warden in 2011. With an average detainee population hovering around 1,200 last year, that churn is constant.

“Fifteen hundred and seventy five (beds) is our operating capacity,” said Clark, who spent 26 years with the Utah Department of Corrections before coming to Tacoma. “We hit 1,400 last year for a week, then fell.”

The number constantly fluctuates, but the Northwest Detention Center’s population has soared above 1,400 several times in 2012. Such spikes have occurred even after ICE changed its national enforcement priorities to focus on detaining primarily illegal immigrants with criminal convictions.

“ICE doesn’t anticipate a significant change to (NWDC) operations other than the detainee population makeup shifting as ICE concentrates on removing more criminal aliens,” said local ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz. “The majority of whom, if not for their immigration status and ICE’s statutory authority to detain them, would be free to re-offend in the community.”

In all, nearly 83,000 detainees – overwhelmingly undocumented immigrants with minor or no criminal records – have passed through the Tacoma detention center’s doors, with nearly 52,000 of them sent back to their countries of origin. Thousands of immigrants from across the Northwest and beyond continue to funnel through a building that remains among the nation’s largest facilities of its kind.

“We’ve never been at capacity,” Clark said last year, even though a GEO memo to Tacoma Police in 2006 showed 27 more detainees were held at one time than the detention center’s then-capacity. “That’s foresight on ICE’s part: When ICE identifies a need, GEO builds more beds.”

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

A dank odor permeated the ground-level apartment in Midland, signaling water seeping somewhere beneath what looks like new carpet. Oscar Campos Estrada worried about mold.

Since he moved his girlfriend and son into the family’s new apartment in January, Oscar had struggled to pay the $750 per month rent. He had been selling homemade Mexican cheese for pocket cash – but he needed a steady paycheck.

After his release from the Northwest Detention Center four months ago, Oscar met with his former boss at the cabinet-making shop in Lakewood. But his old job vanished during the ongoing recession.

To find new work, Oscar now needed to raise $6,000. One thousand would pay off the fines, fees and high-risk insurance he’ll need to hold a valid driver’s license. The rest of the money would pay his immigration lawyer, who could then set up a fingerprinting session with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help Oscar obtain a legal work permit. The one-year permit is available to undocumented aliens with pending deportation cases.

Oscar knew that, without a driver’s license, his prospects for work were bleak. Still, he was committed not to drive again until he’s legal.

“I don’t want to take any chances again,” he said. “So I walk to the store, I take the bus, whatever. I don’t drive.”

It was driving without a license that landed him in jail – and under an immigration hold that sent him to the detention center and into deportation proceedings last year. The same offense led to deportation for his girlfriend’s cousin in late January, he said.

Meantime, Oscar’s own case lingered in uncertainty. He had yet to get a court date for his removal proceedings. But he was in no rush.

“I still may end up getting deported,” he said. “But at least I’m out here now, with my family.”

He motioned to his girlfriend, Maria, and his toddler son, Jasiel, playing in a spartanly decorated living room. Other than two wall hangings – a family photo and a small print of Jesus – the walls were bare.

The date was Feb. 6 – Jasiel’s third birthday. Three days earlier, Oscar was at St. Joseph Medical Center for another birthday – that of his first grandchild.

“I don’t have the money to buy him (Jasiel) a big present or even a cake, but I was here to give him a big hug and say, ‘Happy Birthday son,’ ” Oscar said. “And when my daughter gave birth to my granddaughter, I was in the delivery room.

“Those are the prizes. They can deport me if they want, but they aren’t going to take that away from me.”

Oscar Campos Estrada smiled. Today, he is still living in the United States. Today, he is still living his dream.

InvestigateWest reporter Carol Smith contributed to this report.

lewis.kamb@thenewstribune.com

253-597-8542

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service