Tacoma Tideflats immigration center already at maximum, not likely to change under Trump

How the privately run Northwest Detention Center will function if deportations are drastically increased has not been disclosed.
How the privately run Northwest Detention Center will function if deportations are drastically increased has not been disclosed. Staff file, 2011

For the moment, it doesn’t appear that operations at the privately run immigration detention facility on the Tacoma Tideflats will be greatly altered by President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to dramatically increase deportations.

The 1,575-bed Northwest Detention Center already runs at capacity most of the time. Its owners, the North Carolina-based GEO Group, renewed a 10-year contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency this year, and through a spokesman said there are no immediate plans to expand.

A few months ago, questions about the facility’s future centered on whether the immigration agency would join the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to let its private prison contracts expire. Its renewed contract insulated it from political concerns then.

After Trump’s surprise election, the detention center’s critics and others familiar with its operations say they’re waiting to see what, if anything, might change.

“The Tacoma detention center is already pretty booked full. That can’t go up much more,” said Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney of the Tacoma office of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

The Northwest Detention Center is the largest contract prison in Washington and recently added a fourth federal immigration judge, who works by teleconference from Oregon to help process its cases.

For 2015, federal records show that 1,394 detainees were held at the facility and that the ICE Seattle field office reported 1,722 deportations total for its Washington, Oregon and Alaska jurisdiction. Of those, 705 deportations followed criminal convictions, and the remaining 1,017 were deported for other reasons.

Warden-Hertz said a typical detention at the center happens like this: A detained person is brought in and waits two months to get a scheduling hearing. If the detainee is fighting deportation, it takes another four months of waiting to get a final hearing.

“It looks a little bit like a criminal court, but you don’t get a lawyer in it” automatically, he said.

How the mechanism might change to handle a Trump administration mass deportation order remains to be seen. Warden-Hertz and Peggy Herman, a deportation defense attorney based in Seattle, said the increase in deportations under President Barack Obama already has the regional system running at or near capacity most of the time.

Trump has said he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has authorized 750,000 people to remain in the United States.

“If he (Trump) really puts, as he said, 700,000 DACA-eligibles into the court systems, that’s an automatic huge backlog being created” for judges, Herman said. “Yet they all have that right to have their cases reviewed, and only judges can issue deportation orders.”

Maru Mora Villalpando, an undocumented immigrant who has protested the Tideflats prison, said the systemic demands of a mass deportation have her doubting the threat will come to fulfillment. She predicted “a couple of huge immigration raids” as a demonstration.

“We don’t think that they can build quickly enough a big enough system to accommodate 2 million,” Mora Villalpando said. “Reality-wise, it’s got to take a long time.”

The GEO Group’s stock, which plunged to $19.51 from $34.43 per share with the August statement from the Justice Department, shot back up to $31.50 in the week after the election.

Company spokesman Mark White said in a statement that GEO Group looks forward to “continuing our longstanding partnership with the federal government” but did not say how or whether the company might pursue contracts to expand its facilities.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally