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Monday, May 17, 2021

Ban of for-profit prisons in Washington state

Signed earlier in the month, House Bill 1090 will close the NW Detention Center and change the system for immigration enforcement in the state

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection border patrol station in Ferndale, Wash. on April 22.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection border patrol station in Ferndale, Wash. on April 22. The ban of for-profit prisons in Wash. state raised the question of whether similar public-funded facilities will be expanded in the future. // Photo by Cliff Heberden

By Cliff Heberden

On April 14, Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1090 into law, banning for-profit prisons and detention facilities. The measure announces change to the immigration enforcement landscape in Washington state.

The bill will force the closure of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, owned and operated by the GEO Group, the primary location for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s operation in Washington state.

Antonio Ginatta, a policy advisor for Columbia Legal Services who worked on the creation of the bill, said its signing was big progress in terms of immigration reform at the state level.

“Closing immigration detention centers will help remediate injustices in the immigration system, emanating from the profit-based detention of individuals,” Ginatta said.

The center is one of the largest immigration prisons in the United States with capacity for the detainment of 1,575 individuals, according to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

An ICE official told The Front that the bill would not stop ICE from operating in the state, however, they believe the bill could make the process more strenuous for ICE and detainees. 

The official asked not to be identified because of complex facility rules and the possibility of confusing comments from an employee as a political position. They also cited concerns over safety and security because of the contentious nature of the facility.

The Issue of Transportation

“Limitations on ICE’s detention options here in Washington won’t prevent the agency from detaining those who meet [their] enforcement priorities,” said the ICE official. “It will simply mean ICE will have to transfer noncitizens encountered in Washington to detention facilities outside the state, at a greater distance from their family, friends and legal representatives.”

Liz Darrow, a member of the City of Bellingham’s Immigration Advisory Board and the media coordinator and legislative advocate for Community to Community Development, said there were concerns about transporting detainees. 

Darrow said the closure of the center would force ICE to transport detainees to the nearest facility in Oregon, the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities.

“That’s going to be a transportation issue,” Darrow said. “It could create some crowding in the federal facilities here, which could be used as justification for a larger jail, which has been a debate locally for years.”

Expansion of local facilities?

Darrow said the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities in Ferndale and Blaine have been used by ICE in the past as temporary detainment locations before transport to Tacoma.

“Whenever possible, ICE seeks to house detainees within the geographical area of their arrest to reduce the need for transfers,” said the ICE official. “That, in turn, lowers costs, increases the operational efficiencies of ICE’s detention system, and typically shortens detainees’ length of stay in ICE custody.”

Ginatta said federal agencies can expand their facilities if they choose to, depending on the available land and funding, but the ban of profit-based incarceration is still a necessary step in immigration and justice reform. 

According to a report by Freedom for Immigrants, there are currently 211 operational detention facilities in the country and 70% of immigrant detainees are held in for-profit, privately run centers.

“There is an overwhelming amount of immigration detention in the U.S. and it’s an unfair and unnecessary means to guarantee appearance at immigration hearings,” Ginatta said.

Darrow said Community To Community Development has been working with the Immigration Advisory Board to help the municipality create and provide alternatives to current practices, which would protect immigration rights.

Measuring Alternatives

The Immigration Advisory Board consists of 12 members who review and evaluate existing policies to provide recommendations to improve immigration policy.

“One thing that the board is working on right now is an ordinance to establish an immigrant and refugee resource center,” Darrow said.

Darrow said the establishment of a resource center in Bellingham — which is already implemented in cities like San Antonio, Seattle and Denver — would permit immigrants to voice their needs without the interaction with government officials, which often puts them at risk.

“[It would be] a center that is funded by the city, but run by impacted people to address even just basic needs, like how can you get a driver’s license without being at risk, those kinds of things, all the way up to political formation, culturally appropriate education and gathering space,” Darrow said.

Darrow said the motivation to establish the Immigration Advisory Board came from the work of many local advocacy groups, but also the community response to ICE raids, the most recent being in August 2018.

“There is no true safety for undocumented people from federal immigration enforcement and that is part of the challenge of building community in a system that doesn’t truly support individuals,” Darrow said. “However, that shouldn’t stop cities from implementing structures to increase places where people can gather and build community together.”

Process through community

Ginatta said local governments can potentially offer funding to hire attorneys for the legal representation of people in immigration proceedings, however state law cannot impact federal enforcement decisions.

“Federal agencies have the ability to offer states some flexibility on how to enforce immigration law, like using local law enforcement to enforce federal law, but it’s all on federal terms,” Ginatta said.

Section 287(g) to the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes ICE to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies to permit designated officers to perform limited immigration law enforcement functions.

“Folks who support immigrant equity have fought against these programs, because they usually mean more enforcement, not less,” Ginatta said.

The ICE official said this would be something for the city to decide on its own.

“There is no specific timeline for making recommendations to the city council at this point,” Darrow said. “The Immigration Advisory Board is the result of more than fifteen years of work in our community to strengthen the rights and safety of undocumented people.”

Because it can take a long time to craft sustainable long-term policy, Darrow said the ordinance does not yet detail how the center will function or which specific programs it will offer.

“It does specify that the resource center should be a place where individuals can get help with the citizenship process,” Darrow said. “We have had conversations with law advocates and they are interested in supporting the work of the resource center.”

Before discussing details, Darrow said the board cannot bring a solution that will suit the needs of the impacted community without avenues for community input.

“We need support from the city council to establish the center, but it should be immigrants and refugees themselves who define how the center will work,” Darrow said.

Moving forward, Darrow said she hopes the public continues raising awareness and engagement by contacting and communicating with city officials, which builds an inclusive community.

Cliff Heberden is a journalism student and reporter for The Front. His work focuses on local news and coverage of ongoing issues and legislation. You can reach him at chbrdn.thefront@gmail.com.

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