One is an immigration officer. The other is a young Latino man, wearing a black Adidas jacket.
“It’s show time,” said Scott Goddard, a volunteer with the nonprofit community group Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest.
Every day in Tacoma, volunteers like Goddard wait outside the facility’s tall chain-link gate to watch for people who get released from this immigration lockup. They offer them food, shelter and help to get home.
“Good afternoon,” Goddard greeted the young man as he walked free. “Buenas tardes. Welcome!”
“Thank you, sir,” replied Jose Gonzalez, who was detained here more than three months.
Gonzalez’s attorney is waiting, so Goddard points toward an RV parked down the street. “We’ll be there if you need us,” he said.
The attorney nods then faces her client with wide a smile, “Let’s call your mama!”
A 36-Foot Way Station
Two years ago, AID Northwest parked a 36-foot Winnebago outside the facility, converting it into a makeshift welcome center. A sign propped out front invites visitors in 27 languages.
“Willkommen is German,” Goddard said, scanning the sign. “But I’m not sure we’ve ever had any German people coming out of the detention center here.”
But Goddard has met immigrants from all around the country who’ve been transferred to Tacoma. They don’t have any local connections and need to find their way home to Georgia, New York, Chicago and other far-off places.
Like Gonzalez, these individuals were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE.
Every day, a few people are let go — either because they win their case, or because they get released on bond while their case is pending. They step out of the jail gate into a bleak, industrial area in Tacoma’s tide flats.
“There’s nothing here,” said Peggy Herman, an immigration lawyer and longtime member of AID Northwest. “There is no shelter from rain. There’s no shelter from the sun. There isn’t any seating.”
Inside the RV, people can make phone calls, wait for a ride or get help to their next destination. In the past year, Herman said 811 released immigrants and 327 family or community members came through this rolling way station.
“The guarantee we make is that there will be volunteers here every day to address whatever needs released immigrants have,” Herman said. “That’s our commitment.”
It’s unpredictable how many people will be released on any given day, and this day proves to be a slow one.
Some Need A Little Help, Others More
The gate opens again around 4:30 p.m. and a Russian man in his 60s walks out of detention with a bag full of books. His daughter from Oregon, in tears, gives him a half hug then rushes him into the car for the long drive home.
Later, Jose Gonzalez finds his way to the trailer and the volunteers jump into action, offering him snacks and a seat to relax.
Gonzalez, 21, already has a train ticket tomorrow for San Diego, where he’s lived since kindergarten. His attorney told him AID Northwest can help him find a place for the night.
“We can help with that, sure,” Herman reassures him.
Gonzalez’s family came to the U.S. illegally when he was five. His attorney confirms he has no criminal history. His deportation officer also set an unusually low bond amount, indicating he’s not a danger or flight risk. Now released, Gonzalez will keep fighting his case on the outside, from California.
Gonzalez unwraps his cell phone from a government-labeled plastic bag and asks the volunteers for a charger.
“That seems to always be one of the first requests,” Goddard said. “That and ‘call mama.’”
Gonzalez carries a few belongings in a clear garbage bag and wears the same clothes from the day of his arrest.
“When they arrested me, they had me in the same clothes for like two weeks before they brought me all the way here,” he explained, apologizing for his dirty clothes.
Goddard hands him a new backpack and shows him to the bedroom in the back of the RV, well-stocked with clothes for all sizes and seasons.
“Okay sir, thank you,” Gonzalez answered in his polite way, with a sir or ma’am for everyone.
AID Northwest volunteers have noticed that detainees often lose or gain weight during detention, so their personal clothes no longer fit. Or people arrested in summer get released in winter, and they’re not dressed for the weather.
After Gonzalez is set on clothes and snacks for the train, a volunteer asks if he’s OK on money. Donations are available for those who need it.
Gonzalez shakes his head, then fishes a few dollars from his pocket.
“We’re all in this together,” he said, tucking some cash in the donation envelope. “Some come out of there and they really have nothing.”
That’s especially true for detainees in Tacoma who’ve never lived in the U.S. but were picked up at the border by ICE and transferred here. That was the case for a young man we met on another day, who’d come here from Honduras to claim asylum. He won his case after six months in detention and walked out desperate to find his wife and son who’d been detained in Texas.
Moving On From Detention
Gonzalez got close to a lot of the guys inside. They played cards, made crafts together and just passed the time.
Gonzalez said the detainees all hear about this RV. He knew to look for it.
“I consider it a blessing for those who actually need help,” he said.
This welcome center gave his mom some peace of mind, too. He called her the minute he got out.
“I told her people here will help me so don’t worry where I’m going to stay,” he said.
“OK my son, I’ll be waiting for you,” she replied.
AID Northwest runs a small shelter nearby. A volunteer waited to drive Gonzalez there for the night.
He threw the backpack over his shoulder and took a last look back at the gate. This ICE detention facility is the fourth largest in the country, with capacity for 1,575 people. This sheer size of it left an impression.
“You go in and see a pod of like 70 inmates,” Gonzalez said, describing the group sleep areas. “You’re like, ‘Wow. They really don’t want us here.’”
Here in America, he means.