Protesters continue rallies at detention center, pressure city

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Protests outside the Northwest Detention Center on the Tacoma Tideflats show little signs of fading, with nightly noisemaking or candlelight vigils and larger gatherings during the weekend.

Two mariachi bands, Mariachi Lucero De Tacoma from Lincoln High School and Bahia Azul from Bellingham, for example, played sets for a few hundred protesters last Saturday to help raise awareness of the federal government’s aggressive immigration policies, the yet-resolved separation of families who entered the country seeking asylum and concerns about the living conditions inside the for-profit detention center specifically. The Northwest Detention Center is a 1,500-bed facility owned by GEO Group that operates through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

A protest organizing group, NWDC Resistance, also reported that some 170 detainees at the facility staged a hunger strike through the weekend to protest the continued separation of families under the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. 

Shacorrie Tunkara’s husband Saja has been detained at NWDC since January. She has been given little news about how long his case will linger in the review system. All she knows is that his health is failing. The immigrant from Sierra Leone developed a tumor on his neck. It was only partially removed in April because the tumor was reportedly too close a vital nerve. Tunkara said doctors had recommended physical therapy twice a week, but her husband has only had two appointments since the surgery and his requests for an extra pillow to keep his neck straight while he sleeps have been denied, adding to his pain.

“I’m not going to let my husband come out in a body bag,” she said. “That is not going to happen.”

Stories of similar cases aren’t hard to find, prompting protests inside and outside the center. Protesters flooded the City Council’s Citizens Forum the previous week, for example, to call for the city to do more in support of immigrants.

Tacoma is already a “Welcoming City,” which means the city doesn’t ask a person’s resident status to conduct city business. That is seen as a toothless statement that could be sharpened by declaring “Sanctuary City” status, but that puts the city at risk for cuts in federal funding from the Department of Justice. The city provided seed money to establish a legal fund to help residents facing immigration reviews and possible deportation. The city also faces a lawsuit filed by GEO for changing the zoning for the facility that limits any future expansion over its stance on federal immigration policy rather than land-use issues. The center is located on industrial land that otherwise forbids residential developments.

Tacoma also formed a Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs to develop other ways the city could engage and assist immigrant-support efforts. 

“We are going to follow that lead wherever that takes us,” Councilmember Anders Ibsen said following the Citizen’s Forum.

A chain-link fence has also been installed to separate the city’s right of way from the railroad tracks alongside a collection of metal signs that state the city’s policy against blocking the sidewalk with tents and structures. The city is also looking into the police response to a protest on June 26 that resulted in the arrest of 10 people, when eight of them were later released without charges.

“I’m still traumatized, and I wasn’t beaten to the ground,” said retired attorney and protester Carol Kindt. “That was police-instigated violence.”

She wants to city to revoke GEO Group’s business license because of the alleged abuses, reported poor living conditions and health concerns raised about the center, which most recently had an outbreak of chicken pox.

“That has been proven, this is not conjecture,” she said.

For its part, the city researched ways to increase city oversight of the detention center, following similar raised eyebrows last year, and will continue to seek ways to ensure local laws and policies are followed there. 

Councilmember Ryan Mello, for example, directed the city attorney to draft a legal brief in support of the State Attorney General’s lawsuit against GEO over the detention center’s policy of paying detainees $1 a day for labor around the center. That policy follows federal rules but is not exempt from the state’s minimum wage law since the center is privately operated.

Mayor Victoria Woodards fought back tears after the parade of protesters at the Citizen’s Forum finished blasting the city for not doing more. 

“We really want the same thing you do,” she said, noting that immigration is a federal issue that has long been an item on the city’s legislative agenda to bring up with the state’s federal delegation. “This is a federal issue.”

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