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Behind-The-Scenes At The NW Immigration Detention Center

KPLU | Sept. 17, 2007 6:45 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:19 a.m. | Tacoma, WA

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By Austin Jenkins

When illegal immigrants are captured in Washington, Oregon and Alaska, they’re brought to a federal detention center in Tacoma, WA.

It’s the only facility of its kind in the Northwest. When it opened three years ago, it held 500 detainees. Now it holds on average a thousand.

Correspondent Austin Jenkins recently got a rare look inside this federal lock-up.


The Northwest Detention Center looks like a warehouse with a fence around it. On the day I visit, there are 978 detainees. The vast majority are men. Most have no criminal record – or have committed only minor crimes.

The daily manifest shows virtually every country in the world is represented under this one roof — from Albania to Zimbabwe. But more than half the detainees are from just one country: Mexico.

 Detention
 Neil Clark in the recreational yard at the NW Detention Center

Neil Clark: “De donde eres?”

Detainee: “De Jalisco.”

Neil Clark: “Mexico.”

Detainee: “Si.”

Four Mexicans have just been brought in by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent.

Neil Clark, who heads ICE’s Northwest Detention and Removal Operations — as it’s called — chats in Spanish with the new arrivals.

Neil Clark: “Venticinco anos. He says he’s been working here for fifteen years. I told him that’s okay I’ve been working here for twenty-five.”

This doesn’t feel like the booking process at a county jail. The detainees aren’t handcuffed. They’re just standing around waiting. One even finishes a bag of chips and a drink.

Unless these guys fight deportation, Clark says they could be out of here in a matter of days — winging their way back to Mexico.

Neil Clark: “Ya, we have two flights a week so they could be out of here on either on of those flights.”

But first they’ll have to trade in their street clothes for a prison-style jump suit. Go through a medical check that includes a chest X-Ray to see if they have tuberculosis.

Then they’ll be assigned to a pod. It’s basically a living room with cinder-block walls and metal furniture bolted to the floor. Clark takes me into one of these pods.

Neil Clark: “They’re fed in their dorm so everything is done right here. They have access to an outdoor rec area.”

But it’s kind of crowded — a consequence of the Bush administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. To fit everyone, the staff has put extra bunks in these hang out rooms.

As we tour this particular one, a detainee named Michael Gebre stops us — and a crowd gathers.

Neil Clark: “What is it you want?”

Detainee: “We are crowded in here — especially the bathroom. We use like 20 people one bathroom. You know what I mean.”

Neil Clark: “So you’re saying you only have one toilet in here.”

Detainee: “No we have like two or three toilets, but it’s way crowded.”

Clark explains to the detainees that the national standard is one toilet for every twelve inmates. He checks with the staff to make sure that standard is being met. They assure him it is. But Gebre is undeterred. He turns to me.

Michael Gebre: “They got too many problems in here.”

Gebre says he doesn’t like the food — too much Mexican.

Michael Gebre: “We eat beans and tortilla five days a week — straight.”

At this point ICE’s public relations person says it’s time for us to leave. We exit to shouts of: “we want to go home.”

Neil Clark: “I’ll have to come back, these guys have issues obviously.”

Clark isn’t here everyday. His office is 25 miles north of here. In fact, ICE contracts operation of the Northwest Detention Center to a private prison company. It’s called The Geo Group.

Clark says he’s satisfied with the way the company runs the center — even though some detainees aren’t.

Neil Clark: “And again everything meets the standard, it’s just that nobody is happy with the standard. They want their own place, they want their own toilet. And I don’t blame.”

Our next stop is the law library. It’s really a computer room. Unlike accused criminals, immigration detainees in the U.S. have no right to an attorney. So many of them defend themselves.

The small room is packed with a dozen or so men.

Neil Clark: “Where are you from, what country are you from?”

Detainee: “Pakistan.”

Neil Clark: “Pakistan. Okay. Thank you. Sir?”

Detainee: “Eritrea.”

Neil Clark: “Eritrea. Sir.”

Detainee: “Yugoslavia.”

Neil Clark: “Yugoslavia. Sir.”

Other detainees in the law library are from Mexico, Bosnia, Nigeria, Peru. In many cases, Clark explains, these are immigrants who came to the U.S. legally, but then committed a crime and now face deportation.

That’s what happened to a detainee named Damion — who doesn’t want his last name used for reasons that will become clear in a moment.

Damion: “I’m 29 years old. From Kingston, Jamaica. Live in Portland, Oregon.”

Damion has a green card. But a few years ago he was convicted in Oregon of felony theft and a third degree sex offense. He served jail time, but the government says he’s worn out his welcome and it’s time to go back to Jamaica.

Damion, who’s one of the lucky ones with an attorney, is seeking asylum.

Damion: “It’s against the law to be a gay man in Jamaica.”

Reporter: “And you’re gay.”

Damion: “Yes.”

Reporter: “What will happen to you if you go back.”

Damion: “I will be killed.”

Whether Damion can convince the courts of this remains to be seen. His case is now on federal appeal.

Damion’s case is not the norm. He’s been locked-up here for nearly three years. The average stay is a month.

 

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