Last week, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards was one of dozens of mayors to call on the federal government to reunite immigrant families separated at the border. In a statement, Woodards said Tacoma "remains a welcoming city that is committed to providing immigrant and refugee communities with equitable access to city services."
"I vow," she said, "that I will continue to fight for the health, safety, and success of immigrants and refugees."
Now, immigration activists are asking Woodards to match those words with action by opposing Tacoma’s privately run immigrant detention center.
Northwest Detention Center Resistance will deliver a petition to the mayor and Tacoma City Council today at 5 pm asking the city to revoke the business license of the GEO Group. The private company operates the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), which holds around 1,500 immigrant detainees.
“If they don’t want to be seen as part of Trump’s police, the city should revoke the business license immediately,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with NWDC Resistance.
The NWDC has been at the epicenter of local immigration advocates’ fights for years. Detainees there have launched hunger strikes over guards' treatment of detainees, the lack of contact visits with family members, and the food in the detention center. In recent months, women who were separated from their children at the border were transferred from a federal prison in SeaTac to the NWDC in Tacoma.
Last year, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued GEO Group over its practice of paying detainees $1 a day or less for work inside the detention center. GEO Group attempted to have the case dismissed, and in April a federal judge rejected that motion. The case is currently set for a trial in January 2019.
GEO Group is also a player in local Congressional races. As the Seattle Times recently reported, Washington Senator Patty Murray was one of two Senate Democrats who received the most campaign donations from the private prison industry, including GEO Group. (Montana Senator John Tester received the same amount.)
According to Tacoma city records, GEO Group currently has two business licenses, one to operate the detention center and another for its “in-house transportation division” that transports detainees.
Today's action will mark the second time activists with NWDC Resistance have urged the City of Tacoma to revoke GEO Group’s business license. Mora Villalpando said city officials did not respond last year when activists made a similar demand.
New outrage about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should make the city more willing to act, Mora Villalpando said. The city council has several new members, and the city this year created a Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.
Neither the mayor nor any member of the Tacoma City Council responded to a request for comment from The Stranger. (I’ll update this post if I hear back.)
Under the Trump Administration's "zero-tolerance" policy, thousands of immigrants have been separated from their children at the border and detained. Some of those detainees were transferred to federal prisons, including the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac.
There, mothers who were separated from their children have told stories of fleeing violence in their home countries and receiving little information about where their children are now. Some of those detainees were later transferred from the prison in SeaTac to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Three women separated from their children and transferred to Washington prisons are now suing the federal government.
As protests against ICE have swept the country in recent weeks, people have gathered outside both the prison in SeaTac and the NWDC in Tacoma to protest.
In Tacoma, some protesters camped overnight beside railroad tracks near the detention center. Late last month, Tacoma Police arrested 10 people at the site. Additional fencing now blocks access to the train tracks.