The City of Tacoma installed fencing near the Northwest Detention Centers to prevent protesters from accessing railroad tracks owned by BNSF.
The City of Tacoma installed fencing near the Northwest Detention Center to prevent protesters from accessing railroad tracks owned by BNSF. NWDC RESISTANCE

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Ahead of a Tacoma City Council meeting last week, immigrant rights advocates called on that city's leaders to take a hard line against the Northwest Detention Center. Citing public health concerns at the private prison, they wanted the city to revoke the detention center's business license, forcing it to shut down.

New comments from the city's mayor show that's not likely to happen.

In an interview with News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll this week, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards expressed sympathy with broader calls to change the federal government's treatment of immigrants, but showed no indication the city will take local action against the GEO Group.

The private prison company runs the 1,500-bed detention center where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds people for alleged immigration violations. In recent weeks, the federal government has also transferred some asylum seekers separated from their children at the southern border to the detention center.

Activists have protested conditions at the Northwest Detention Center for years. Detainees have launched hunger strikes to protest guards' treatment of detainees, the food served in the facility, and other issues. The American Civil Liberties Union sued ICE and the GEO Group this year after a guard allegedly assaulted a detainee. (The GEO Group denied the allegations.) Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with NWDC Resistance, told the Tacoma City Council last week detainees report bad water, unclean bathrooms, and a recent chickenpox outbreak.

Woodards told Driscoll the city would need to identify "significant enough building violations" to legally justify shutting a business down. She said the city "could" revisit its checklist of business license regulations to ensure the GEO Group is complying.

On alleged public health issues, the mayor's answer was also vague: "If we were to be notified by an agency responsible for health and welfare, and they evaluated (the NWDC) through a health-and-welfare lens and found there to be a violation, then we could look into those violations."

After repeated protests at the detention center, including near railroad tracks owned by BNSF, police arrested 10 people and ordered activists camped in the area to remove structures. The city also erected new fencing to stop protesters from accessing the tracks.

Woodards said she understands the frustration, but defended those decisions claiming, "We have to take care of private businesses just like we have to take care of our community members."

Read the full interview here.