Center of Detention was jointly reported by The News Tribune's Lewis Kamb and InvestigateWest's Carol Smith. More information on the series is available.

A rare look inside Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center

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Illegal immigrants wait to board a bus on Aug. 1 at the Northwest Detention Center
en route to Boeing Field for a deportation flight to Mexico.
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

The building could be any other industrial warehouse on Tacoma’s Tideflats, if it weren’t for the razor wire surrounding it.

The man could be any other middle-aged father living in Pierce County, if he weren’t facing deportation.

An immigration lockup. An illegal immigrant. Two lives intertwined by a common, tangled thread: U.S. immigration policy.

The immigrant is Oscar Campos Estrada, a 39-year-old father of five who has lived in Pierce County for more than half of his life. As a Mexican, a male and a minor offender, he represents the typical detainee who passes through the facility’s reinforced doors.

Over the past year, he and his family have navigated a maze of court hearings, administrative procedures and in-custody visitations under a cloud of potential deportation.

Oscar faces removal after building a life here, even though brushes with federal immigration authorities could have sent him back to his country some 20 years ago.

The building is the Northwest Detention Center, an institution described in the parlance of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials as a “COCO” – a contractor-owned/contractor operated facility.

Over the past eight years, the low-slung complex run by a global corrections empire has steadily expanded next to a toxic sludge field near Commencement Bay. It has grown into a 1,575-bed facility, making it one of the largest immigration detention centers in the United States.

On any given day, 30,000 motorists on a state highway less than a quarter mile away drive past its sprawling gray campus, many unaware of its existence or back-story.

Both the lockup and the immigrant, Oscar, are rooted here. Both relocated to Pierce County for renewal. Both grew, flourished and ultimately collided in Tacoma.

Oscar’s personal tale illuminates the larger narrative of the massive but largely masked detention center, a structure steeped in the lives of foreigners, but uniquely American.

VIDEO: OSCAR'S STORY

Across the border

When night fell, they showed up where a smuggler instructed them to go – a field across the railroad tracks at the edge of town, just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Men, women, boys and girls, about 20 people in all, whispering, shivering, waiting to be told what to do next.

It was February 1991. Seventeen-year-old Oscar Campos Estrada, a stocky laborer with wavy black hair and a middle-school education, had journeyed to Tijuana a few days earlier with his girlfriend, his mother, father and eight-year-old sister. To get there, the family rode nearly 1,700 miles on a ramshackle bus for three days, leaving behind a one-room house in the central Mexican peasant village of Tzintzuntzan.

When they arrived in Tijuana, Oscar’s father — a migrant worker with a green card that permitted him to live and work in the United States — negotiated an arrangement with smugglers.

For two nights, Oscar’s family tried to cross, only to be stopped and turned back each time. Border patrol agents corralled them, hauled them to a nearby bureau, took their photographs and fingerprints, then ushered them back across the border into Mexico.

We’ll see you again tonight, the agents laughed. But the third night was different.

Vamanos! a smuggler barked in a hushed tone to the crowd assembled in the field. One by one, his clients silently fell in behind him, following into the darkness.

For the next 12 hours, they slogged through sand, gravel and a stiff wind, up cactus-dappled ridges and down steep-walled canyons. Somewhere in the night around them, a helicopter buzzed, engines revved and disembodied voices chattered over radios. Smugglers countered with whistles and hand signals – part of the unseen game of cat and mouse cloaked by darkness. Oscar draped his sister’s legs over his shoulders and clutched his girlfriend around her waist.

“They could be anywhere,” he said, looking back years later. “So, just follow the smuggler’s orders: ‘Stop. Go. Run. Lie down.’”

“It’s slow. It takes all night and you’re cold. You’re freezing, you’re tired, you’re hungry and you’re scared. But you don’t want to give up on your dream, either.”

By dawn, Oscar’s dream had taken him down a well-traveled path into a Southern Californian river valley. The smuggler had led the immigrants to the edge of a freeway, where a series of cars met and whisked them to a safe house in nearby Chula Vista.

Later that night, the group filed up a slide ramp and into the back of a Ryder moving truck, the rear door dropping behind them. The truck and its concealed cargo of 20 Mexicans then drove north along Interstate 5, passing through a border patrol checkpoint north of San Diego without incident.

For $800 a head, Oscar and his family had made it to America. Within three days, he’d start a new job – and a new life – in Pierce County.

Changing landscape

The site where a federal prison would rise was little more than a crumbling meat packing plant at the edge of a toxic sludge field in 1991, when a Mexican teenager named Oscar illegally entered the country some 1,100 miles due south.

The site could have stayed that way, too – if not for a sharp increase in the nation’s newly preferred method for dealing with illegal immigrants: Locking them up.

In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress approved two new bills – the Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Report and Immigrant Responsibility Act – that would shape immigration policy for years to come.

The intent of the legislation was simple: The nation needed to stem its increasing flow of illegal immigrants – a population one study at the time estimated at 5 million people who cost the American taxpayers a net $20 billion every year. Such costs, according to the analysis by Rice University economics professor Donald Huddle, came from education, criminal justice and social services provided to immigrants, and lost wages to displaced U.S. workers.

When Democratic President Bill Clinton signed both measures into law, the federal government garnered broader authority to arrest, detain and deport noncitizens. The private prison industry in America was about to boom.

About the same time, in Seattle, one of the nation’s largest private prison contractors quietly began laying the groundwork for a multi-million dollar payday.

Correctional Services Corp. or CSC had grown into a national company with 35 adult and juvenile facilities in 15 states and Puerto Rico.

The company’s founders, former Washington, D.C., hotel managers Jim Slattery and Morris Horn, started the private corrections firm in New York in the 1980s. It quickly won several lucrative state contracts, including management of the Brooklyn Arms. The notoriously crime-ridden welfare hotel drew lawsuits for its inhumane conditions, but also high profits. The company eventually expanded into federal prison contracting.

In 1995, the company, which by then had moved to Florida, won a contract to build and run a detention center for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Elizabeth, N.J. But after a riot there, INS pulled the contract. Amid a scandal that followed, the company changed its name from Esmor Corrections to Correctional Services Corp., and continued to bid for and win government corrections contracts.

By then, CSC already held the Northwest’s federal immigration detention contract. Since 1989, it had run operations for the INS at its main regional detention facility – an aging yellow brick building east of the Kingdome.

Even before the new federal immigration laws took effect, bed space in the Seattle detention facility had become increasingly scarce. CSC officials could see the future before it arrived. Three years before the government solicited bids for a new facility, the firm began exploring sites in Western Washington for building one.

At first, Tacoma wasn’t even on the radar. The company examined undeveloped “virgin sites” in Auburn, Pacific and Sumner. But each time, CSC met with obstacles and opposition from government, citizens or both.

Three years passed, and by then, the population at Seattle’s detention center had swollen beyond its 250-bed capacity. Federal authorities also recognized the facility needed $20 million of seismic upgrades.

“INS determined that the Seattle detention center no longer served the needs of the agency as it became cost-prohibitive to maintain the 1930s-era facility in accordance with contemporary detention standards,” federal immigration officials recently wrote in an email.

In 1999, the INS announced it was shopping for new digs. In a formal bid request, the agency sought a contractor to build and run a facility within 25 miles of SeaTac Airport that could hold 500 beds for detainees.

Time was running out on CSC’s competitive advantage. The company focused on industrial-zoned sites with fewer obstacles to build. Shortly before bids were due, it set its sights on Tacoma.

Settling in

The Mercury Cougar pulled into the low-rent apartments in Sumner on a Saturday in February 1991, after more than a 20-hour drive. Everything about the muscle car screamed America, except for its seven road-weary occupants.

Oscar’s father, Salvador, had arranged for two fellow migrant workers to drive more than 1,000 miles to pick up four new arrivals near Los Angeles, a day after they’d slipped into the country. The car then turned around and motored north along Interstate 5, destined for Pierce County.

Before Oscar set foot in Washington, his father had also secured work for him and his girlfriend, Maria-Guadalupe– picking flowers for $4.50 an hour at a nearby tulip farm.

“We got here on a Saturday and they wanted me to go to work on Sunday,” Oscar recalled. “I told them I’d be there Monday.”

For the first few months, the young couple lived with six other family members in a two-bedroom apartment. Oscar’s father – a seasonal farmhand with a green card who’d been coming to America since the 1960s and Pierce County since the 1980s – helped them adjust to the new setting. Two of Oscar’s sisters with established families in Tacoma also contributed support.

“You get here only with the clothes on your back,” Oscar said. “To survive, you have to have help from a lot of people — your family, neighbors, friends. You live with 15 guys in one apartment to save money. You do what you got to do.”

The next year, Salvador submitted an eligibility petition on Oscar’s behalf, so that one day Oscar could apply for and obtain a permanent resident card – the federal permit known as a green card. An immigrant’s eligibility must first be established by a qualified sponsor before he or she can get in line to wait for a turn to apply for permanent residency – a process that takes at least a dozen years.

It would take the INS seven years just to approve Oscar’s petition. By then, Oscar’s personal circumstances had changed, invalidating his application.

In the early 1990s, Oscar only knew a petition had been filed for him that could take years to process. He kept working. When tulips disappeared, he picked cabbage, then celery. To continue his employment, he illegally bought a Social Security Card from a legalized Hispanic man and had taxes withheld from his paychecks.

Meantime, Maria-Guadalupe became pregnant with the couple’s first child. One evening, when her cravings for enchiladas brought the expectant parents to a tienda on Tacoma’s East Side, they experienced yet another first: An immigration bust.

Getting to East J Street

Tacoma leaders, unlike their counterparts in Auburn, Pacific and Sumner, didn’t fight Correctional Services Corp.’s interest in the city as a location for a new detention center. But their welcome was conditional.

After a federal review initially found the detention center should be built on a site coveted by the Port of Tacoma, politicians muscled it to an alternate property – one with a more questionable locale.

In the end, the facility where hundreds of immigrants would be locked down at any given time was planned for the edge of a toxic sludge field, within a flood plain and on land made up of fill-material prone to liquefying during earthquakes.

Both of the sites considered also were situated squarely in the path where scientists say volcanic mudslides will flow should Mount Rainier ever blow its top and within an area that could be inundated by raging waters within 8 to 20 minutes if a significant tsunami ever strikes Puget Sound.

The 16-acre site on East J Street between the Puyallup River and Foss Waterway was one of two properties CSC had bought options on in 1999, as time was running out to bid for an INS contract seeking a new detention center. The other site was an 11-acre parcel in the northeast part of the port area, on Taylor Way between the Hylebos and Blair waterways. Several businesses had been located on the Taylor Way site over the years, including a boiler tank company, a cedar homes manufacturer and a freight distributor.

At the time, city officials were struggling to attract economic development for cleaned-up brownfields within Commencement Bay’s Tideflats.

City and port officials quickly made their preference clear: They wanted the detention facility built on East J Street. Port officials wanted the Taylor Way site reserved for port expansion.

“The Port strongly opposes the Taylor Way alternative because industrial land that is located in proximity to major water, rail and road transportation infrastructure is in scarce supply,” Andrea Riniker, then-executive director of the port, wrote to the INS.

Some residents in Northeast Tacoma also complained a detention center built on the Taylor Way site would be too close for comfort to their neighborhood, even though it was more than a mile away and separated by a waterway, industrial buildings and a bluff.

Mostly though, few residents knew about the detention center project. In mid-2000, a public open house to explain the project, that was legally advertised two weeks in advance, drew no attendees and one written comment. No one voiced dissent about one of the building sites under consideration.

The East J Street site had its own issues. For the better part of a century, the property had served as home to the Cartsen’s – then Hygrade – meat-packing plant surrounded by industrial fueling centers, maritime storehouses and freight railways.

At the property’s edge, a federal Superfund project area dubbed “the Tacoma Tar Pits” – where a plant transformed coal into gas and spewed toxic sludge into the soil for three decades – unfolded in a collection of drainage ditches, retention ponds and a capped waste pile.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took control of part of the property in the early 1990s, using it to monitor groundwater wells and to stockpile and cap contaminated soils during cleanup of the adjacent tar pits.

An investors group led by local demolition contractor Doug Rhine had purchased the property and cleaned it up with intentions to sell it shortly before CSC came calling.

Tacoma City Councilman Kevin Phelps, who then represented both the port and Northeast Tacoma, and is now the Pierce County deputy executive, soon made it clear that Tacoma would welcome the new regional detention center – so long as it was built on the East J Street site.

“If we had to have it in Tacoma,” he said during a recent interview. “I’d rather help try to encourage where it went, and we didn’t want it on prime port property.”

The city’s attorney had also determined a privately operated detention center didn’t meet the state’s definition for an “essential public facility” – a designation that would have prevented any local development or zoning laws from thwarting its development, Phelps said.

“It wasn’t an essential public facility, but the two sites they’d picked out carried the appropriate zoning,” Phelps said. “Building a detention center on either of those sites was an allowable use within Tacoma’s zoning at that time.”

City officials hoped in vain their support of the project also would help Tacoma wrest a planned relocation to Tukwila of INS’ regional headquarters.

In March 2000, the Tacoma City Council unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution introduced by Phelps that supported the proposed detention center on the East J Street site. It cited CSC’s “excellent reputation” and anticipated the new facility “would bring ... hundreds of family-wage job opportunities.”

Phelps sent letters to INS officials a few months later, noting he had asked city staff “to make every effort possible to ensure a smooth and expedient permitting process” for construction at the East J Street site.

He also warned if the Taylor Way site was selected for the project, “Tacoma will make every possible effort to keep the INS from constructing a facility on this site.”

With the council’s backing, CSC and city planners moved forward with a state environmental review and the permitting process for the East J Street site, even though a required federal environmental review by INS had yet to identify a preferred location.

CSC wanted the city to complete its review early so the company would be immediately ready to meet a construction deadline once the federal contract was awarded. At first, city planners wanted to wait until the federal review was done, but they ultimately gave in. In October, the city issued a “Determination of Nonsignificance” for the project, finding that building on the East J Street site would not pose significant environmental impacts.

But in February 2001, a draft of the INS’ federal Environmental Impact Statement found the East J Street site wasn’t ideal. Because that site contained excessive hazardous waste and was situated along the Tacoma Tar Pits Superfund unit, it posed “an unidentified risk” and “liability concerns for the INS.”

“The Taylor Way Site has been identified as the preferred alternative of the two locations under consideration,” the draft report concluded.

 

Perturbed by the decision, city and port officials turned to Congressmen Norm Dicks and Adam Smith. The Democratic representatives jointly wrote a letter to the federal official in charge of the review to express alarm at the decision and urge his agency to delay any final recommendation.

 

Tacoma Mayor Mike Crowley and Phelps also criticized the decision. They tasked city staff to find out what legal actions Tacoma could employ to block the detention center from being built on the Taylor Way site.

While the politicians pressured INS, the private prison contractor also lobbied the agency to choose the East J Street site. Among other things, a lawyer for CSC noted the Taylor Way site had its own environmental issues, and city officials could change Port area zoning to block the project, if INS chose the Taylor Way site.

INS still found the Taylor Way site’s environmental issues easier to address than the J Street site. But the agency ultimately changed its conclusions. Its final recommendation for a new Northwest detention facility did not identify a preferred building site, describing both as satisfactory for the project.

 

A different INS official who later decided the matter cited the final report’s findings and “overwhelming support” from city and port officials as justification for choosing the East J Street property for the project.

In hindsight, three different environmental law attorneys who were independently surveyed by The News Tribune said the detention center’s review process appears unusual in several respects.

Among other issues, the lawyers noted the state and federal studies were not synchronized as usually occurs.

“That’s unusual,” said David Bricklin, a prominent Seattle environmental law attorney who has practiced for 35 years. “They normally coordinate those. They aren’t required to, but they normally do.”

Such coordination typically occurs partly because federal law requires that until a final decision on a federal environmental review has been made, “no action concerning the proposal shall be taken which would ... limit the choice of reasonable alternatives.”

CSC sought a separate state environmental determination for the detention center project only for one of the site alternatives in play — the East J Street site. The city issued that determination several months before the federal decision had been made.

The lawyers also noted the federal review’s final impact statement did not identify a preferred site alternative as is usually required.

Under federal law, a final EIS must identify the agency’s preferred alternative, “unless another law prohibits the expression of such a preference.”

Though the draft report noted Taylor Way as the preferred building site, the final report stated federal bidding regulations “prohibit INS from identifying the preferred site prior to entering into a contract for the facility.”

But no one raised any such issues about the review process before the decision came down in December 2001, just in time for a surge in demand for immigration detention bed space. Several weeks earlier, a terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., had killed 2,975 people. Big changes were in the offing for U.S. immigration policies that would help drive that demand.

Don't look back

On a cold day in January 1992, Oscar and his pregnant girlfriend, Maria-Guadalupe, had just stepped out of a Mexican grocery near McKinley Avenue and East 40th Street, when two agents flashing INS badges converged on them.

Where’s your green card, one of them asked Oscar.

I don’t have one, he explained. But I’ve applied for one.

I was born in California, Maria-Guadalupe lied, when an agent asked her the same question.

The agents eventually let his girlfriend go, but they took Oscar to a small office in downtown Tacoma filled with other Hispanic men. An agent there told Oscar the sweep aimed to crack down on gang-fueled drug trafficking that had been escalating in Tacoma.

At the time, immigration officials believed Oscar worked for the convenience store at the center of the drug probe, said Andrew Munoz, a local spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“He was caught up in the middle of a narcotics investigation in connection with the convenience store that was the target of the investigation,” Munoz said. “The records say he was a store employee or worked there.”

Within a few hours, most of the men caught up in the sweep had been questioned and released. But not Oscar. He and a group of about a dozen Mexicans were taken to the INS detention center in Seattle. Agents there fingerprinted and photographed the men, exchanged their street clothes for orange jumpsuits, then detained them in a holding pod.

The next morning, several agents ordered the men back into their street clothes.

Time to go, one announced.

The agents escorted the men down a corridor toward a closed door. Oscar’s mind raced.

Who will take care of Maria and the new baby, he wondered. Will I get to say goodbye?

At the door, the agents stopped. Oscar and the other men stopped, too, staring blankly at their escorts for a sign of what to do next.

Go, an agent motioned. Go.

Beyond the doors, the public lobby of Seattle’s INS building bustled with people coming and going. Oscar saw his father standing at a nearby reception desk. Salvador waved his son over. Go to the gas station across the street and wait for me, his father told him.

Oscar was dumbfounded. No guards. No bus. Nada, he thought. He’d been released, but didn’t understand why.

Oscar didn’t stop to ask. A few minutes later, he was walking with his father to a car parked nearby.

Don’t look back, Oscar thought.

Twenty years later, immigration officials say they let Oscar go on the condition he would voluntarily return to Mexico.

“Mr. Campos-Estrada was detained by INS and granted voluntary return in lieu of removal proceedings,” Munoz said. “(Department of Homeland Security) records, however, do not contain evidence that show he actually departed.”

INS documents show Oscar signed a document agreeing to “return to my home country on the first available transportation.” Such offers are usually one-time deals – if the person doesn’t voluntarily leave, he forfeits any future chance to leave voluntarily.

 

Oscar said he may have signed something, but didn’t really understand what it meant.

“I don’t remember agreeing to anything like that,” he said. “I had no idea why they let me go, I was just glad they did.”

Oscar instead returned home to his girlfriend. He wasn’t about to leave the country or quit working, either. By then, he and Maria-Guadalupe had another mouth to feed. They named their newborn daughter America.

Financing the project

When a multi-million dollar private prison contractor started building an immigration detention center in Tacoma in 2003, it did so with the help of a state financing authority primarily started to encourage manufacturing jobs for Washington businesses.

It also solicited the assistance of Tacoma City Councilman Kevin Phelps, who – acting on his own without council approval – helped the prison contractor meet a state eligibility requirement to obtain that financing by pledging the city’s “continued support” for the detention center project in a letter.

In the end, the Washington Economic Development Finance Authority – created by the Legislature in 1989 “to act as a financial conduit” for small and medium-sized businesses “that cannot readily obtain needed capital” – issued $57 million of nonrecourse revenue bonds to finance the Florida-based Correctional Services Corp.’s construction of the Northwest Detention Center.

A 1999 change in state law had expanded the authority’s mission to include financing projects within federally designated enterprise and empowerment zones such as Tacoma’s port area, which was then within a state “community enterprise zone.”

 

WEDFA, as the state financing agency is known, walked away from the deal richer. It garnered about $204,000 in transaction fees for brokering the 10-year bond issue for the detention center project.

The unfunded state agency, which operates under the governor’s office, relies on transaction fees to cover its annual budget of about $275,000 a year. WEDFA uses such revenues to pay its two-member staff’s salaries and benefits, and to cover other agency expenses.

“The apparent benefit to the state is the $200,000 for the authority and possibly the jobs this facility created,” said John Rose, a municipal bond expert who retired five years ago as president of the Seattle Northwest Securities Corp.

“The question you have to ask is whether these jobs and the economic activity from this project would have happened anyway, without the state’s financing.”

They almost certainly would have. Well before the bond deal closed, CSC already had won a lucrative federal contract to build the facility in Tacoma. The publicly traded company, which reported revenues of $136 million for 2003, could have sought to obtain a private loan or self-financed the construction by issuing its own bonds on the industrial bond market.

Or, CSC could have applied for a loan to build the federally-utilized facility through the federal government, which receives extremely low interest rates.

Instead, the company utilized the state authority to obtain a low-interest, fixed-rate loan over a relatively long term – 10 years. The loan’s favorable terms saved the company about $564,000 in debt payments it would have paid through private financing, WEDFA estimated at the time.

The way nonrecourse bonds work, the state isn’t on the hook for repayment of the bond debt, which runs through 2014. Underwriters and investors hold that risk.

CSC couldn’t land such a sweet deal without getting a government to issue the bonds. The company had applied for the special bond financing in late 2002. CSC wanted the loan to cover construction and land costs for a 156,000-square-foot facility to house up to 500 illegal immigrants on part of the 16-acre East J Street site. The company had optioned to buy the property for $3.95 million.

The detention center project met the state authority’s criteria for financing in part, said Jonathan Hayes, WEDFA’s executive director at the time, because it would create an estimated 134 jobs.

As it turned out, only about 45 jobs initially were created. Most of the 190 employees at the new detention center transferred from existing jobs at the old INS facility in Seattle.

WEDFA officials later decided that CSC’s lucrative contract, combined with favorable trends that foretold of strong demand for the detention center, posed little risk of default for bond underwriters or investors.

For each detainee up to 350, INS would pay the contractor $162 per day. Beyond 350, the INS would pay $25 per detainee up to the maximum capacity of 500.

The federal government also guaranteed CSC that its 500-bed facility would be at least half-full with immigrant detainees at all times.

With the federal Patriot Act enacted following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the newly-minted Homeland Security Department’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement– one of the successors to the INS – expected to ramp up its deportation efforts.

Even under conservative estimates, CSC stood to clear up to $12.5 million per year from the facility after expenses – more than enough to meet its debt service obligations under a 10-year repayment plan.

Before the WEDFA board voted on the financing proposal, Hayes noted the detention center “will be welcomed by the community in which it will be located.”

CSC’s application cited Tacoma’s support for the project – a requirement for WEDFA financing. The application included a copy of the City Council’s resolution from three years earlier that backed the project, and a more current letter requested in January 2003 from Councilman Phelps.

“This letter is to confirm the City of Tacoma’s continued support for the construction and operation of the new facility,” Phelps’ letter, written on his council letterhead, stated in part.

The letter was sent at a time when the political winds had shifted in Tacoma. By then, Bill Baarsma, who wasn’t in office in 2000 when the council approved the resolution, had been elected mayor. Baarsma vehemently opposed the detention center and didn’t know Phelps had sent the letter on the city’s behalf until The News Tribune recently showed him a copy of it.

“My hunch is when I became the Mayor of Tacoma and I was not going to support this ill-conceived project, (CSC) probably went directly to the councilman who was a known booster to get what it needed,” Baarsma said.

“This is an example of freelancing by a council member that would never happen today,” Baarsma added. “It’s unbelievable.”

Phelps said he was aware of Baarsma’s opposition to the detention center, but he didn’t run his letter by the full council, which by then included four new members. Had he done so, Phelps said, Baarsma likely “would be in the minority position” anyway.

“It wouldn’t have been hard for me to put together five votes on something,” he said.

Phelps added that he views what he wrote as accurate and reflective of the city’s position at the time, because the council had never taken any action reversing the council’s 2000 resolution.

“There was a formal action – this city came out in support of that (project) – and it hadn’t changed, the best that I know, at the time when the request for the letter came in,” he said.

In April 2003, WEDFA’s board voted 8 to 1, with one abstention, to finance CSC’s project. With state-aided financing firmly in place, a construction crew that had gathered on Tacoma’s Tideflats a few weeks earlier started building the private detention center.

Trying for citizenship

By 1998, Oscar and his girlfriend, Maria-Guadalupe, had three children – all U.S. citizens by virtue of their births on American soil. The couple also had lived in the United States for more than seven years.

During that time, Oscar’s father, Salvador — a permanent resident with a green card — had twice submitted visa petitions for his son, so that Oscar could become eligible to apply for a green card. Meeting INS’ eligibility requirements would have put Oscar in a long queue, allowing him to one day seek to become a permanent resident.

But with each petition, complications arose. Oscar’s latest application had been filed under a category seeking eligibility for a green card holder’s unmarried adult son. Oscar’s father, Salvador, had filed the petition on his son’s behalf in January 1998. But his status changed 10 months later.

“In November, I got married,” Oscar said.

Oscar and Maria had been together for years and considered themselves a wedded couple. In some states, the duration of their relationship surpassed the threshold for a common-law marriage – considered a legal union. But they’d never been formally married, and that gnawed at them.

“It was a cultural thing,” Oscar said. “We wanted to get married by the church.”

The two planned a Catholic wedding and their priest informed them they needed a marriage license. The couple obtained the document, then signed and submitted it following their ceremony.

“I thought it was just a church certificate,” Oscar said. “I didn’t know it was a legal document. In Mexico, a church marriage is one thing, a legal (marriage) is another.”

But Oscar and Maria had, in fact, gotten legally married. By doing so, Oscar had changed his marital status and unwittingly invalidated two different petitions submitted for him at different times that ultimately were approved.

Oscar’s latest application had sought eligibility under the F2B visa category – as an unmarried son of a lawful permanent resident. But no eligibility category exists for a permanent resident’s son who is married.

“I didn’t realize what we’d done,” Oscar said.

And he wouldn’t realize it for a few more years – not until his younger brother, Cesar, made his own inquiries about obtaining a green card. Before Cesar applied for permanent residency, he learned his odds would improve if he and his girlfriend first got married, then applied jointly as a couple.

“Cesar encouraged me to check on my own situation,” Oscar said. “So, I went in to reopen my case and I found out my application had been disqualified.”

A lawyer advised Oscar to get divorced, then reapply. Another option was to have his father, Salvador, obtain U.S. citizenship, then submit a new visa petition for Oscar under a different eligibility category. But by then, Oscar was frustrated.

“Immigration laws are changing every year,” he said. “You submit an application, it gets accepted and then the rules change or the waiting period expires. Everything is so complicated. For my brother, getting married helped him. But in my case, it hurt me. Some of these immigration laws are twisted.”

Councilman reconsiders

Just before the detention center was set to open in 2004, one Tacoma city councilman who’d voted for the project was having second thoughts about it.

In 2000, Bill Evans had joined a unanimous council vote in favor of a nonbinding resolution that supported the detention center’s development at the East J Street site. Now, after local activists raised concerns to him, Evans questioned whether the location of the new facility that would lock down hundreds of people at a time was safe.

“I was very opposed to the siting of it,” Evans recalled. “I started grasping at straws.”

Meantime, a private convention center owned by Councilman Phelps garnered a small amount of business from the new detention center’s corporate owner.

In April 2004, as the Northwest Detention Center’s grand opening neared, Correctional Services Corp. spent $6,800 to rent space at the Landmark Convention Center – a private meeting venue on St. Helens Avenue owned and operated by Phelps – to train the detention center’s officers.

Russell Rau, CSC’s project manager, said at the time the former councilman’s ties to the Landmark had “absolutely nothing to do with my decisions” for renting it as a training venue.

“But that’s great,” Rau added. “I’m glad we’re doing business with him.”

Phelps, who recently said he was only vaguely aware of the business dealing, said he didn’t solicit CSC’s business nor does he view it as a potential conflict, even though he still sat on the city council.

“I was the big convention space in town when I owned that company – I did more events than anyone – so it was a natural place to go,” Phelps said. “But I wouldn’t have been involved in that booking.”

Phelps noted that his support for the detention center project always was motivated to protect the public’s interest and ensure the facility wasn’t built on prime port property.

“I think we made the right decision,” Phelps said. “If it was going to be in Tacoma, the site they developed it on was the correct choice.”

But Evans separately had his doubts. Just weeks before the detention center’s grand opening, he questioned the detention center’s location.

In an email to then-Interim City Manager Jim Walton, Evans noted Pierce County’s building code restricted “jails and detention facilities” in areas designated as “volcanic hazards,” such as Tacoma’s Tideflats.

Key among the long list of environmental concerns related to the building site was the fact it stood in the path where scientists have projected lahars would flow if Mount Rainier had a major eruption.

 

Nationwide, some local jurisdictions and at least one state – Oregon – have laws prohibiting jails, prisons or correctional facilities from being built in such designated volcanic hazard zones. Now Evans wondered how Tacoma could allow the detention center to be built where it was.

Then-Public Works director Bill Pugh responded to the councilman’s concerns in a memorandum noting the county law didn’t apply within the city limits. Pugh added the city’s critical areas code didn’t regulate volcanic hazard areas.

A consultant had since recommended the city exclude “critical facilities” from such volcanic hazard areas in the future, but the detention center “was legally permitted under the regulations that existed at the time of approval,” Pugh wrote.

Despite Evans’ concerns, the detention center had gone through all the necessary steps and received all required approvals.

On April 20, 2004, CSC officials gave several local politicians and dignitaries a tour of the gleaming new detention center on Tacoma’s Tideflats. Three days later, the 500-bed Northwest Detention Center was open for business.

Maria Morales, the 39 year old estranged wife of Oscar Estrada Campos, worries about the possible
long term impacts on her 3 children if their father is deported back to Mexico.
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

CHAPTER TWO: Finding the American dream — and losing it

About the time a new detention center was set to open on Tacoma’s Tideflats, an illegal immigrant at a chicken slaughterhouse some 12 miles away kept busy supervising about a dozen employees.

For four years after illegally slipping across the U.S. border, Oscar Campos Estrada and his young family had bounced from town to town in Pierce County, following the itinerant lifestyle of a seasonal worker.

He had held more than a half dozen jobs – mostly low-paying and sometimes under-the-table work, such as washing dishes and picking crops. But in 1995, Oscar landed a laborer’s position at the poultry business and changed his life.

Family-run Starkel Poultry on South Hill mainly provided slaughtering and processing services, but for Oscar, it offered stability.

“They rented me a house on the grounds there,” Oscar said. “I lived there and worked there for nine years.”

During that time, Oscar expanded his work skills, enhanced his paycheck and grew his family. His oldest daughter, America, was joined by two younger siblings, brother Oscar Jr. and sister Magali. The family settled into the community.

“My kids were pretty much raised there,” Oscar said. “They all went through Puyallup schools.”

Oscar started at Starkel doing menial chores – hanging live chickens in preparation for slaughter. He eventually worked his way into a supervisor’s role, helping to run operations at the plant. Oscar learned to maintain and repair machinery, and he picked up welding, plumbing and commercial truck-driving skills.

“I learned a lot of things there,” Oscar said. “Probably the most important thing was learning how to treat people and how I should be treated in the workplace.”

But as Oscar well knew, security can be fleeting. Relationship troubles led to big life changes. Oscar separated from his wife, then made a tough decision about his job.

“It was time to move on,” he said.

By the time he’d left Starkel in 2004, Oscar had raised his pay to $14.50 an hour – a decent living to support his family of five, he thought.

But as good as the job was for him, he believed it was one most Americans wouldn’t take.

“In the paper and on the talk shows, people complain about how we take jobs away from citizens,” Oscar said. “But this is the land of opportunity. People here are going to school and college, but not to pick apples or hang chickens or clean houses. Nobody wants the jobs we take to support our families. So who are we really taking them from?”

Center expands

Even before the Northwest Detention Center opened its doors to a flood of illegal immigrants detained in the post-9/11 era, plans quietly had been hatched to expand it.

In public forums, discussions and correspondence, the proposed facility consistently was described as a 500-bed detention center. The federal contract awarded to the Correctional Services Corp. in 2002 stated the prison contractor was “responsible for acquiring and operating a facility which is capable of housing up to a total of 500 (estimated maximum) detainee aliens.”

But in March 2003 – about 17 months before the facility opened – Homeland Security and CSC officials agreed to a contract modification.

The amendment called on the prison contractor to “configure the facility to allow for future expansion of a possible increase of detainee population to up to 800.”

It wouldn’t take long for federal officials to seek the expansion. Nearly as soon as the detention center opened in April 2004, business was booming.

In its first month, the facility tallied 367 detainee book-ins. That proved to be its lowest monthly population count ever. From then on, book-ins soared, at times pushing near capacity.

By the end of 2004, after less than five months of operations, almost 3,300 detainees had been booked into the new detention center – over 1,000 more than the average annual intake at the INS’ old detention facility in Seattle.

The detention boom in Tacoma reflected the beginnings of a national trend. Aside from the federal Patriot Act that helped pave the way for more deportations, the newly created Department of Homeland Security, with its Office of Detention Removal (DRO) and Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), drafted a 10-year strategy in 2002.

Called “Endgame,” the plan’s core mission was “to remove all removable aliens” in the United States – an estimated 12 million people – by 2012. To meet those ends, DHS had to create the capacity for holding and removing illegal immigrants. It needed more detention centers with more bed space.

“DRO will exploit every opportunity presented in order to build the capacity to remove all removable aliens,” Endgame states.

By 2004, Congress had approved expanding America’s immigration detention capacity by 40,000 beds.

Heading into 2005 with its capacity at times straining, the Northwest Detention Center was prepared to get bigger. A change in ownership ushered in the facility’s rapid expansion.

Oscar's legal troubles

During his two decades in America, Oscar had his brushes with the law. He’d been arrested at least seven times from 1993 to 2010 for driving without a license or driving with a suspended one – all misdemeanor traffic offenses. But he also had garnered several more serious convictions.

He’d been busted twice for driving under the influence of alcohol in 2004 and 2005. During the first DUI, Oscar drove his pickup into a car parked at the Parkland Transit Center and tried to leave the scene.

Most of his legal troubles over the years were fueled by drinking, Oscar admits.

“That’s why I haven’t drank a drop in seven years,” he said.

His problems with driving drunk coincided with a stormy relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Maria-Guadalupe. The couple had crossed the border together as teenagers in 1991. They bore three children over the next seven years. Then in 1998, they finally were married.

But six years later, they’d separated and each had started seeing other people. Still, emotions between the two ran deep. Each accused the other of cheating and abusiveness. Meantime, financial hardships took a toll on the family. Oscar took a second job and his ex-wife worked 12-hour workdays on weekends to support the family.

In January 2005, Oscar, who’d been living with a friend, came to visit his children at the family’s apartment on South Hill. He and Maria-Guadalupe argued, then slipped into another room to get out of earshot of their kids. The encounter turned sexual at some point.

Maria-Guadalupe later told police Oscar had raped her. She didn’t scream for help, she said, because she didn’t want her kids worrying. Oscar disputed her account, contending they’d had consensual sex.

In a statement to police written in Spanish, his ex-wife maintained her rape accusation.

My husband came to my house and sexually violated me, the statement translates in English.

... I also want to clarify that for the moment I do not want to charge my husband, she wrote.

In an interview with police about a month later, Oscar claimed Maria-Guadalupe had pleaded for him to reconcile with her that night. She initially allowed him to have sex with her, he added, but then pushed him off during intercourse and started crying.

Police arrested Oscar for rape and assault. When he later agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault, the rape charge was dropped.

“I didn’t want to plead guilty,” Oscar said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.

“I could’ve filed charges against her for making that up, but I didn’t want to put my kids through all that.”

Oscar’s various legal troubles over the years had resulted in court-ordered fees, fines, counseling sessions, treatment programs and community service. He also served home detention, probation and jail sentences.

But during most of his brushes with the law, Oscar’s citizenship status never became an issue, he said. ICE officials say the agency put a detainer on Oscar while he was being held in 2005, but never took him into custody.

“Following his release from local custody he was not turned over to ICE,” agency spokesman Andrew Munoz said.

But the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department disputed that, and a booking record for Oscar from the time indicates no detainer.

“Immigration had never placed a hold on him,” Pierce County Det. Ed Troyer said. “There is no immigration hold at that time.”

Regardless, after a judge ordered Oscar released from the local jail on time served, he was free to go.

“I was lucky,” Oscar said. “My citizenship never came up.”

His luck would run out in April 2011.

Under new ownership

Less than a year after opening the new Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, one of the nation’s largest private prison contractors prepared to sell it.

By July 2005, Correctional Services Corp. had agreed to sell all of its facilities and contracts to the global corrections goliath, The GEO Group.

GEO, a Florida-based company founded by former FBI agent George Wackenhut, took over CSC’s 15 adult correctional facilities nationwide by the end of 2005.

As part of the deal, GEO assumed control of the federal immigration detention contract in Tacoma, with about three-and-half years and $94 million of renewal options remaining.

The $62-million corporate buy-out coincided with the onset of rapid expansion at the Tacoma facility, which eventually would become one of the largest immigration detention and processing centers in the nation.

Within a month of new ownership in November 2005, the detention center’s capacity grew from 500 to 800 beds, and GEO cashed in on the growth.

Changes in the federal contract added a new payment tier that calculated daily payment rates for every immigrant detained above 500. In 2006, its first full year of operations, GEO reported $25.6 million in annual revenues from the facility – about 10 percent more than the $23.2 million reported by its predecessor a year earlier.

The boom continued. By December 2006, GEO and Homeland Security officials agreed to expand the facility’s bed space capacity again – from 800 beds to 1,000. The added space helped GEO’s annual revenues for the Tacoma facility climb in 2007 to $31.8 million – 37 percent more than CSC’s best year in 2005.

In little more than a year, the Northwest Detention Center’s new owners had doubled detainee capacity by converting existing space for detention purposes.

The expansion meant that the facility primarily built to hold undocumented immigrants in Washington, Oregon and Alaska also could accommodate overflow detainees from facilities around the nation.

For GEO and the federal government, the timing was perfect. As Homeland Security’s “Endgame” continued to play out, the number of immigrants booked into federal detention centers nationwide skyrocketed.

National “book-ins” of immigrant detainees rose from more than 233,000 in 2005 to over 383,000 in 2009. Over the same span, undocumented immigrant book-ins in Tacoma doubled, climbing from about 6,500 to more than 13,000.

When the Endgame boom hit, GEO was poised to accommodate it.

By then, The GEO Group – a global security firm with $2.8 billion in annual revenues – had increased its American operations to 58 facilities with a combined capacity of 48,000 beds. Its seven immigration detention facilities with a combined 7,200 beds made the company ICE’s second largest private contractor.

GEO’s facility in Tacoma seemed only a small player, but it was a proven money-maker and GEO had big plans for it.

Booked and detained

The green sedan had just rolled through a stop sign at the bottom of a hill on the East Side, when Tacoma Police Officer Eric Barry began to follow it.

After street lamps illuminated a large crack in the middle of its windshield, Barry hit the lights on his cruiser, and the sedan pulled into a gas station.

It was 4:34 a.m. on Saturday, April 23, 2011.

By then, 37-year-old Oscar Campos Estrada had moved from the South Hill to East Tacoma to start a new family. He had lived in Pierce County for 20 years, raising three children with his longtime girlfriend and eventual wife, Maria-Guadalupe. After the couple split. Oscar and his new girlfriend, Maria, welcomed a boy, Jasiel, now 2.

Oscar had just left his new family and was on his way to work an overtime shift at a cabinet-making firm in Lakewood when the officer stopped him.

Oscar’s hands trembled as he gave Barry his state identification card.

Why are you shaking, Barry asked him.

“I’m not supposed to be driving because my license is suspended,” Oscar said.

Then why are you driving?

“I have to feed my family.”

Oscar was arrested and booked into the Pierce County Jail. A few days later, prosecutors charged him with driving while his license was suspended. The charge ultimately would land Oscar in jail for four months.

Oscar was still on probation for a first-degree suspended license conviction from 2010 at the time of Barry’s traffic stop.

For months, Oscar followed a court order not to drive, he said. Most days, he bicycled 12 miles from his family’s East Side apartment to his job in Lakewood. After work, he bicycled home.

That Saturday was the first time Oscar’s work had scheduled him for an overtime shift. At the time – between paying child support for his three older children and raising a toddler – Oscar could’ve used the extra cash. He agreed to work the shift.

A few days before the Saturday work shift, Jasiel took ill. The night before, Maria had stayed up all night tending to the sick boy. When the time came to go to work, Oscar opted to drive his brother’s car to his job instead of biking there.

“I was tired,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake up my girlfriend. I made a mistake.”

Three days after his arrest, federal ICE agents, who in recent years have become more active in screening local inmates, showed up at the Pierce County Jail to fingerprint and photograph Oscar. They also placed him under an immigration hold.

“Based on his immigration and criminal history, most notably his assault and driving under the influence convictions and his previous voluntary departure, (Enforcement and Removal Office) officers placed a detainer on him,” ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz said.

The designation meant that once Oscar completed his local jail sentence, he had a reservation at a sprawling correctional complex on Tacoma’s Tideflats.

Looking at a ultrasound image of her yet to be born granddaughter, Maria Morales enjoys a moment away from the financial worry of sustaining her family without her ex-husband's child support payments. In addition to the financial strain on her, her children from left, Maglia ,13, America 19, and Oscar Junior, 17 at right, worry about losing their father to deportation. America, 4 months pregnant with her first child moved out of the family's Puyallup department and in with her boyfriend, Arturo, to help ease the financial strain.
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

CHAPTER THREE: Out of jail and into the deportation process

A rare hot sun beat down on Tacoma in late August 2011, but Oscar Campos Estrada spent all of his time indoors.

By then, Oscar had worn the gray uniform of a Pierce County Jail inmate for nearly four months. But the jail term was the least of his worries.

Two decades after he illegally slipped over the U.S. border from Mexico, Oscar’s life as an illegal immigrant finally had caught up to him. A few months earlier, a Tacoma police officer had stopped Oscar on his drive to work for a cracked windshield. The cop quickly discovered Oscar was driving with a suspended license – an offense he’d been busted for several times before. Oscar was arrested and booked.

Pierce County Jail officials later contacted federal immigration agents, who interviewed Oscar by phone. The agents told Oscar they’d be coming for him.

Nearing the end of his jail term, Oscar tried to prepare himself mentally for a transfer to the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s Tideflats – a transfer into the unknown.

“I don’t know what will happen to me,” he said.

Oscar put his odds of being deported at 50-50. With idle time in a jail cell, he’d thought long and hard about his situation.

“I’m illegal, but I’m allowed to pay taxes and pay child support,” he said. “I’ve been here more than half my life. My children were born and raised here. I’ve tried three times to get a green card, but every time something happened to stop it. I’m Mexican, but I feel like an American. I’ve worked hard to support my family. I love this country and I want to stay, so I’m going to fight it.”

What Oscar didn’t know then was that about a year earlier, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs had sent him a letter. It sought to inform him that he was now eligible to apply for a green card under the petition filed for him by his father in 1992.

After 18 years, Oscar’s long wait for green-card eligibility was over. But he wouldn’t have been able to obtain legal permanent resident status. His marriage in 1998 had disqualified him under the eligibility category for which he’d been petitioned and approved.

Nearly two decades later, Oscar instead waited in jail — unaware of the letter he would later say he never received — facing a pending deportation reckoning that easily could cut against him.

“I’m worried about the impact it would have on my kids emotionally,” he said. “If they send me back to Mexico, I’m not coming back. If I try and get caught, you’re talking five years in federal prison. I’m not taking that chance. So if I’m gone, how will my family survive? What happens to them?”

Oscar’s family already had suffered. During his incarceration, Oscar’s $900 per month child support payments to his estranged wife, Maria-Guadalupe, had stopped.

Ever since, she had scraped by to support Oscar’s 17-year-old son, Oscar Junior, and 13-year-old daughter, Magali.

Meantime, Oscar’s girlfriend, Maria, and the couple’s two-year-old son, Jasiel, also lost most financial means. Maria still worked as a house cleaner, but she struggled to cover rent.

“I am afraid they will lose the apartment,” Oscar said. “She’s wondering if she should start selling things.”

Oscar also worried that, should he be released, he wouldn’t have a job to go back to. He’d been making good money – $14 an hour – at a cabinet-making shop in Lakewood.

“It’s not easy to find a job like that,” Oscar said.

Thinking ahead

A private prison contractor planned the expansion of a detention center in Tacoma before the federal government ever asked for it.

In May 2008, a consultant working for The GEO Group informed the City of Tacoma she was completing a required environmental review checklist so the company could “conduct construction activities.”

The consultant wrote in an email to then-Tacoma City Manager Eric Anderson’s office that the project involved increasing an existing “secured 500-bed detention facility” by another 500 beds.

In actuality, GEO and Homeland Security officials already had ramped up capacity at the Northwest Detention Center by reconfiguring existing space. In all, the facility held 1,030 beds for detainees.

The plan called to enlarge the building so that it could accommodate 1,575 beds. The expansion also would make the Northwest Detention Center GEO’s largest facility on the West Coast and among the four largest federal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in the nation.

The consultant requested the city’s comments on potential impacts the project would have on city services. The consultant wanted to hear back from Tacoma officials within two weeks to meet a deadline. City officials responded on time with a short list.

About two months later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security first publicly indicated the need for expanded detention services in the Northwest.

With the contract with GEO set to expire in about a year, the “sources sought announcement” issued on July 16, 2008, looked to identify contractors able to meet a future requirement “to provide and operate a Detention Facility capable of housing up to an estimated 1,575 detained aliens.”

GEO already had a jump on as many as 11 other vendors that later expressed interest in the contract. The company quickly responded to Homeland Security’s announcement with a detailed expansion plan. It was nearly identical to the contract specifications the federal government would request nine months later in a formal bid solicitation.

Federal acquisition regulations restrict the release of certain procurement information before and after bid awards.

A spokesman for GEO did not specifically respond to questions about how the company anticipated the need for expansion and still met federal bidding requirements. Instead, Pablo Paez, GEO’s vice president for corporate relations, responded in a general statement that the company has followed all contractual requirements and laws since taking over the Northwest Detention Center.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said GEO’s actions, as a private company, didn’t violate contracting procedures.

“They are free to do what they want to do,” ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz said. “They can make their own corporate decisions to plan for expansions or not. That doesn’t infringe on federal regulations, because they still have to go through the bidding process.”

Local ICE officials who work directly with GEO in Tacoma didn’t make the ultimate contract decisions, Munoz added. Those decisions were made in Washington, D.C., he said.

City officials raised few concerns about the expansion project’s potential impacts: The city manager asked for more details on detainee release procedures and noted the project would require “a full permitting process.”

Internally, some City Council members wondered if Tacoma held any authority over the expansion. When City Councilwoman Julie Anderson asked for a reminder on the city’s limitations for “allowing” the detention center to operate, City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli advised that the Northwest Detention Center was considered an “essential public facility” under state law.

 

The designation – reserved for airports, solid waste plants, correctional centers and other facilities that are typically difficult to site – precludes local governments from prohibiting or preventing the siting and expansion of such facilities in their jurisdictions, Pauli noted.

In short, Tacoma had no say in the matter – other than to ensure city building code, state environmental requirements and other reasonable mitigations were met, Pauli said.

“There was various discussion about the expansion – pro and con,” former Mayor Bill Baarsma recently recalled. “But we were told it was a fait accompli. We had an obligation. We had to allow it.”

Council members didn’t question Pauli’s legal analysis. But it ran counter to what one former councilman recalls as advice from a different city attorney nine years earlier, before the detention center was built.

Kevin Phelps recalled the city attorney’s office advised him and other council members in 1999 that, because the then-proposed detention center would be privately operated under a contract, it didn’t meet the state’s “essential public facility” definition. The law also specificially cites “local and state correctional facilities” as meeting the designation.

Nonetheless, the city’s legal staff also advised development of the facility couldn’t be stopped anyway, because it complied with existing zoning provisions that allowed “correctional facilities” in the Port of Tacoma area, Phelps said.

Kyle Crews, now an assistant state attorney general who at the time worked as an assistant city attorney specializing in land use, doesn’t recall where he came down on the issue.

“We probably looked at it, but I don’t think (CSC) pressed the (essential public facilities) issue, because it was zoned right,” Crews said. “So, why even go to Step 2, if you’ve already got the zoning for it?”

Steve Victor, another lawyer who worked for Tacoma during the detention center’s development, also said he can’t recall the city’s legal analysis on the issue. But he added if a similar project cited only the “essential public facility” designation as a way to locate in University Place, where he now works as city attorney, he’d oppose it.

“Based on the same facts – with this kind of a private, contract facility – I would litigate it,” he said.

The “essential public facilities” designation is significant. After the detention center’s construction, Tacoma could have changed its port area zoning or employed other land use measures to prohibit the facility’s expansion and ensure others like it didn’t site there in the future. But if the private building is considered an essential public facility, the city’s land use laws wouldn’t apply. Tacoma would be rendered helpless from stopping any expansion, as Pauli opined.

In a recent email, Pauli stood by her analysis and said she doesn’t believe the city’s legal position has changed.

“I do not have any information that informs me whether the (city’s legal) department had taken an official opinion on this issue, much less what that opinion might have been,” she wrote.

Regardless, in 2008, with the city’s responses to the project in hand and its planning well under way, GEO submitted a response to Homeland Security’s public notice just 15 days after it was issued. The company presented a detailed plan to construct a 105,000-square foot, 553-bed expansion to the Northwest Detention Center.

By September, city land use officials determined GEO’s plans didn’t require an expanded state environmental review. That had been done in 2003, when the existing facility was built.

The city issued grading and construction permits. A construction team began working in October 2008, six months before the federal government issued a formal solicitation. In November, after the crew began its work, GEO’s quarterly report to shareholders noted the company expected “the 545-bed expansion to cost approximately $40.0 million and to be completed in September 2009.”

“We do not currently have a management contract with a government client to operate this expansion,” the report added, “but plan to market the new beds to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, our existing client at this facility and, if necessary, to other federal and state agencies around the country.”

Going to detention

At 9 a.m. on Aug. 26, 2011, a Pierce County corrections’ officer called out his bunk number.

Number 4, the guard ordered. Roll up.

When Oscar emerged, the guard led him to a jailhouse processing lobby. After more than an hour of waiting and paperwork, Pierce County deputies turned him over to private prison guards employed by The GEO Group. The guards cuffed his wrists, shackled his ankles, then escorted Oscar and another undocumented immigrant to a windowless van idling outside. It motored him from the downtown Tacoma to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security regional office in Tukwila.

For the next several hours, federal ICE agents fingerprinted, photographed and processed Oscar, before the GEO guards cuffed, shackled and led him and other undocumented immigrants onto a bus with tinted windows bound for Tacoma. The trip ended at the Northwest Detention Center.

Inside the sprawling complex, Oscar and the other new arrivals went through another round of fingerprinting and paperwork. Medical personnel also took X-rays and conducted blood work on each new detainee. Finally, a guard issued Oscar a blue uniform – the color classifying him as someone with only minor criminal offenses. Oscar, like most detainees, was assigned to a minimum-security pod.

“I left the jail at 9 a.m. and I got into my bunk at the detention center at 3:30 the next morning,” Oscar said. “They told me it’s not that long of a process, but they’ve already fingerprinted me three times.”

No longer a Pierce County Jail inmate, Oscar officially had become a Northwest Detention Center detainee, and a new kind of waiting game began.

A long wait

“Why does he have to wait 20 days for a bond hearing?” asked Amy Kratz, poised to answer her own question.

The veteran Seattle immigration lawyer used her client’s circumstances to make a point. In early September 2011, Oscar Campos Estrada had been in the Northwest Detention Center for two-and-a-half weeks, yet still hadn’t seen a judge.

Each week, hundreds of immigrant detainees are held without bond while awaiting removal proceedings for what amounts to a civil infraction of federal law. When undocumented immigrants are detained, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can decide whether to set a bond or not. Without explaining why, an ICE spokesman recently said the agency opted to let a federal judge decide bond in Oscar’s case.

Like Oscar, most immigrant detainees wait to go before a judge to request bond be set. When determining bond or other forms of release, judges are supposed to consider whether the immigrant presents a flight risk and danger to the community.

Federal regulations provide an immigration bond be set no lower than $1,500, but the amount may be higher depending on the court’s assessment.

Even with three federal courtrooms on site in Tacoma, an unflagging caseload means it can take several days or weeks before a detainee ever gets a bond hearing, Kratz said.

“So then we have to wait to climb through the judge’s calendar just to get this guy back to work and feeding his family,” she said.

The lawyer pointed out that a criminal charge anywhere in the United States typically would ensure a defendant received a quick first-appearance and bond hearing. Not so in immigration court, she said.

“This whole system just doesn’t entertain the presumption of liberty we’re supposed to have,” Kratz said. “The system is fundamentally on its head. Usually for a civil infraction – a traffic ticket, jaywalking – you don’t face detention.”

But when it comes to immigration cases in the United States, alleged civil violators have fewer protections than criminal offenders, she said.

Officials for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) - the agency responsible for adjudicating immigration cases - recently wrote in response to a reporter’s questions that a detainee’s bond hearing will be scheduled “at the earliest possible date after a request is made.”

The agency doesn’t keep track of statistics that show how long it usually takes to hold such hearings for immigrant detainees.

“EOIR is committed to ensuring due process and fair treatment for all individuals in removal proceedings within the existing legal framework and to the extent the law allows,” the officials added.

But within the existing legal framework, they noted, there “are currently no statutory or regulatory deadlines for holding immigration bond.”

Site contamination

Five years before The GEO Group planned an expansion of the Northwest Detention Center, Washington’s Department of Ecology had placed restrictions on the site designed to protect people from potentially contaminated grounds.

But contractors for the private prison company violated that agreement, called a restrictive covenant, by boring into soil near a federal Superfund site without first getting the state’s approval.

The violation brought few consequences, despite a relatively new state law that called to strengthen compliance to such existing covenants. The law seeks to ensure such covenants and their conditions perpetually “run with the land.”

Local activists alerted state and federal officials to GEO’s city-permitted expansion project and apparent violation in December 2008.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee-Tacoma – a group led by a retired Army intelligence officer named Tim Smith – sent photographs showing a construction auger boring into the ground next to the detention center and pulling up soil. The work occurred just south of where a grass-capped containment cell covers a toxic benzene plume and other hazardous waste on a Superfund unit known as the “Tacoma Tar Pits.” The work appeared to violate a covenant put in place in 2003.

Ecology officials had placed restrictions on the site when the Correctional Services Corp. was still considering buying the property to build the detention center. Remediation work on the site in 2002 released into soil and groundwater unsafe amounts of total petroleum hydrocarbons and cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – contaminants known as TPHs and cPAHs. That triggered a required cleanup and Ecology’s call for the covenant – a contract that restricts certain future activities on the site.

Among other conditions, the covenant requires anyone who ever owns the site to receive “prior written approval from Ecology” before conducting activity that could pose potential health hazards. That includes boring into the ground, which potentially could release various contaminants and put public safety at risk.

 

But in December 2008, a construction crew working for GEO did just that without first seeking state approval.

State Ecology officials found the work dug up soil with “moderate exceedances” of some of the cancer-causing contaminants, but within standards “for an industrial work scenario.”

The officials could have fined the billion-dollar prison corporation for the violation or issued a stop work order on GEO’s expansion project.

“Sometimes you’ve got to do that,” said Marv Coleman, a site manager with Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program. “But we find issuing penalties is less constructive than to make sure the problem is taken care of properly.”

Ecology officials decided GEO “wasn’t trying to keep us in the dark,” Coleman said. “It was mainly they didn’t know any better. They didn’t realize they had a covenant and needed to do this.”

They should have known, Coleman said.

“If they had done proper due diligence, they should have been aware of it,” he said. “A covenant is on the title of the property. It should have popped up in front of them.”

Joan Mell, a Fircrest attorney who represents GEO, later said the company never meant to disregard environmental regulations. “They’re very concerned about being a good neighbor,” she said.

In a letter sent to Ecology in January 2009, Mell also contended City of Tacoma building and land use officials approved the work, concluding nothing further was needed with regards to the covenant because it dealt with a different part of the Superfund site than where the new expansion work was happening. In records, Ecology officials noted the city’s finding as “incorrect.”

Activists pushed Ecology to halt the project and seek criminal prosecution. But Ecology officials said the matter didn’t warrant it, finding no evidence to show the violation posed a public threat. What little contaminated soil that had been unearthed later was discarded properly after activists raised the issue, they said.

In the end, GEO admitted no wrongdoing and agreed to undertake a “Voluntary Clean-Up Plan” – so long as Ecology officials didn’t pursue any other action.

Ecology officials only required GEO to agree to the plan so they could monitor potential environmental issues – at the company’s expense – during the construction activity, Coleman said. A few months later, after GEO complied with the plan and its contractors completed their groundwork, Ecology officials decided no further action was necessary.

“What happened wasn’t something that was going to exacerbate environmental problems on the site,” Coleman said. “And that’s the main reason for requiring the covenant in the first place.”

GEO’s contract with Homeland Security stipulates the prison contractor must comply with all local, state and federal laws in its operations. Federal immigration officials recently said they weren’t readily made aware of the restrictive covenant violation, though Smith’s group sent letters at the time alerting them to the matter, records show.

After a brief delay, the expansion of the Northwest Detention Center moved forward. When the facility’s initial federal contract expired in April 2009, GEO won a temporary extension. Later that month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a formal bid request seeking a facility in the Seattle area that could accommodate up to 1,575 immigrant detainees.

A month after GEO finished construction in September 2009, Homeland Security awarded the company a new one-year base contract, with four year-long renewal options through October 2014. For GEO, the expansion proved lucrative.

The new contract guaranteed the detention center in Tacoma would always be paid for a minimum population of 1,181 federal detainees. The company would be paid $100.65 per day for each of those detainees. And for each detainee above the first 1,181, the federal government also agreed to pay $62.52 per day.

“Minimum revenue guaranteed by the contract increased to $3.5 million monthly from $1.5 million,” a Standard & Poor’s credit review of the new contract later concluded.

In all, GEO would make no less than $43.4 million per year – and up to $52.4 million annually – for its expanded immigration detention services in Tacoma.

Impact on the family

Inside a modest corner unit of a triplex on South Hill, four-fifths of a nuclear family crowded together on a well-worn couch to discuss the circumstances facing the family’s breadwinner.

On a wall, a painting of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe – a national symbol of Mexico – silently presided over the living room. An aging snapshot on a shelf captured a family vacation to Universal Studios in California and the broad smile of a now-absent father during happier times.

But on this weekday in September 2011, the estranged wife and children of Oscar Campos Estrada were wracked with worry.

Oscar Jr., a 17-year-old Rogers High School senior with a styled fringe of bangs and mod black-rim glasses, put the situation into a teen’s perspective.

“It would suck,” he said, when asked what his father’s deportation would mean. “He wouldn’t be here for my graduation.”

“It’s hard to concentrate on school or anything really when that’s on your mind,” he added. “It’s weird not having my dad here.”

When Oscar went to jail five months earlier, the child support payments that propped up his family halted. Maria-Guadalupe, Oscar’s estranged 39-year-old wife and mother of his first three children, instantly became the family’s wage earner. She took a dietary aide’s job at an East Tacoma nursing home where her oldest daughter, America, also worked.

Nineteen, and four months pregnant, America started contributing part of her own modest paycheck to help support her mom, her brother and her 13-year-old sister, Magali. America also moved out of the family’s apartment and in with her boyfriend, Arturo, as a way to ease the family’s financial strain.

But even with America’s help, Maria-Guadalupe struggled to maintain the family’s humble lifestyle. She worked longer hours – and into a higher-paying cook’s job. But the $1,200 to $1,400 she brought in each month fell far short of covering the family’s bills.

Maria-Guadalupe canceled satellite TV and phone service first. When the family couldn’t pay the power, the utility company shut off electricity. Maria sent her kids to live with her father until she could get the power restored. She also began receiving food stamps to supplement her income.

“I have worked really hard,” Maria-Guadalupe said. “I tried to apply for welfare, but it’s really not that good. We can’t eat for $130 month.”

The bleak financial situation is one thing, Maria-Guadalupe said. The family has adapted to lean times before. But the prospect of her children losing a parent to deportation is something else.

“We need him to stay here,” she said, “because he’s a father.”

If Oscar’s absence were to become permanent – should a federal immigration judge order him deported – the impacts to the family would be severe.

In the short term, it would mean missing family milestones: Magali’s soccer games. Oscar Jr.’s graduation. The birth of America’s first child.

Longer term, his absence could reverberate for decades. It could mean the couple’s two youngest children – both American-born and -raised – would be forced to leave with their father to Mexico. Maria-Guadalupe could not afford to hold the family together without Oscar’s financial help, she said.

“I feel bad for my kids,” Maria-Guadalupe said. “It is hard for them to go back to his country.”

In 2004, when the couple first split up, Maria-Guadalupe took her three children to live in Mexico for eight months while she recuperated from the break-up and sought financial support. All of the kids attended school in Mexico, but they struggled to fit in.

“Nobody liked us,” Oscar Jr. said. “They saw us as stuck up. They all think that if you’re from America, you must have money.”

After the family returned to the United States – the kids by plane, their undocumented mother on foot, paying a human trafficker to sneak her across the border again – the children fell back into the awkward limbo that has haunted them as the offspring of non-citizens.

It’s a place where you avert the eye-contact of strangers, speak cautiously to authority figures and try not to attract attention to yourself.

“They feel that they don’t have a country,” Maria-Guadalupe said. “When we are here, in the United States, they are looked at as Mexicans. In Mexico, they’re looked at as Americans.”

Caught between two worlds, the children would prefer staying in the one with more opportunity. But if Oscar is ordered back to Mexico, the family may not have a choice.

“If our dad’s deported, my brother and sister would leave with him,” America said. “They could not survive without him, financially or emotionally. Our family would have to split up.”

Outside the Northwest Detention Center's gates and free after nearly six months of incarceration, Oscar Campos Estrada embraces his girlfriend Maria who is mother to his two-year-old son Jasiel, at left, in a tearful reunion.
The News Tribune

CHAPTER FOUR: The complicated world of immigration law

Oscar Campos Estrada’s deportation case illustrates some of the complexities of U.S. immigration laws.

Generally, any person who has entered the United States without going through customs; who has been illegally employed here; or who has failed to always keep lawful permanent residency is subject to deportation.

But there are legal exceptions, and that’s where Oscar will seek to fight his removal, said Amy Kratz, Oscar’s immigration lawyer.

The man who came to this country as a teenager, raised a family here and has since spent more than half of his life in Pierce County could seek an “exceptional hardship” waiver to remain in the United States, Kratz said.

But going that route requires a persuasive showing. Kratz would have to prove someone connected to Oscar – a resident, spouse or child – would suffer at least one in a range of adverse conditions meeting the law’s eligibility criteria.

In Oscar’s case, “the hardship is obvious,” Kratz said. He’s father of four American children, ranging in ages from 3 to 19.

“The kids love their father. They don’t want to be without him. They depend on him financially and emotionally,” Kratz said. “But the law says that’s not exceptional hardship, that’s typical hardship.”

An applicant who seeks a hardship waiver generally must meet a higher threshold, such as proving the life of a loved one with a chronic medical condition would be endangered if the applicant was deported.

“The threshold is very, very high,” Kratz said.

Oscar likely will try a different route. In 1992 and again in 1998, Oscar’s green card-holding father petitioned on his then-unmarried son’s behalf for permanent residency eligibility. The applications eventually won approval, meaning Oscar was in line to seek and obtain a green card.

But later that same year, when Oscar married Maria-Guadalupe, his longtime girlfriend and mother of his children, their legal union invalidated Oscar’s petitions.

“The only thing he did wrong to ruin his eligibility was to get married,” Kratz said. “Had he not gotten married, he’d have a green card by now.”

Kratz will argue Oscar’s case warrants discretion.

“It could go either way. If he loses and gets deported, there’s a 10-year bar from coming back legally, unless the consulate in Juarez grants him a waiver.”

But in late September 2011, Kratz’s first order of business was getting bond set for Oscar and getting him out of the Northwest Detention Center. Oscar had been held there since August, after serving a four-month jail term for driving with a suspended license.

“All bonds set on these cases are unnecessarily high,” Kratz said. “They’re supposed to look at whether someone’s a flight risk or a danger to the community. And if they’re not, why are they being detained at all? But what we’re hoping for really is a lower amount. Fifteen hundred would be doable.”

A low bond amount could prove crucial for Oscar’s future, Kratz said. If a judge refused to set bond, or set it too high, Oscar’s removal proceedings would begin within a matter of weeks at the detention center. And most in-custody hearings result in deportation.

But if Oscar got out, his case would be moved to the court’s out-of-custody calendar in Seattle, where the backlog to get a court hearing stretches for months.

The extra time could buy Oscar permanent residency in the U.S., Kratz said.

The longer his case drags out, the more likely he can submit another petition for a green card. In a year and a half, Oscar’s daughter, America – a citizen by virtue of her birth here – will turn 21. Once she does, she can submit a green card eligibility petition on her father’s behalf under family-sponsored eligibility rules. Oscar’s petition could be approved before his deportation case is resolved. If it is, Kratz said, Oscar may be eligible to stay in the U.S. during the long waiting period it will take for him to officially become eligible to apply for a green card.

But the key was getting Oscar out of the Northwest Detention Center.

“Nobody wants to put their case on in detention,” Kratz said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s expensive. You have to gather a lot of evidence and you don’t have as much access (to your client). If we can get him out of there, life would be so much easier – for his case and for his family.”

Financing the expansion

Two years after self-financing the expansion of the Northwest Detention Center to help win a new federal contract, a global private prison empire obtained a $54.4 million state-aided bond loan to refinance that project.

The GEO Group received funds to reimburse its expansion costs from taxable nonrecourse bonds issued by the Washington Economic Development Finance Authority, a state program started primarily to help create manufacturing jobs for small and medium-sized businesses but later expanded to allow other projects.

WEDFA, which brokered the bond deal in late 2011, made several exceptions and finessed a typical requirement to help GEO obtain the special financing. By setting aside the usual requirement for a “local planning jurisdiction approval” – in this case, a statement of support from the City of Tacoma – WEDFA helped the private prison contractor meet financing conditions.

In turn, the deal brought a big pay day for WEDFA – an unfunded, two-person state agency that relies on fees from the deals it brokers to cover its $275,000 annual budget.

The transaction – the fourth largest in WEDFA’s 22-year history – was only the second deal aided by the finance authority in 2011. Closed in December, the transaction garnered nearly $136,300 in service fees for WEDFA, helping make the authority’s budget for the year.

“That’s the only money we get – from fee income,” said Rodney Wendt, a finance lawyer who makes about $108,000 per year as WEDFA’s executive director.

But Wendt noted the deal was sound and met requirements to his satisfaction.

“I feel like this was a first-rate transaction,” he said. “I would say that if the exact issues came up with a $2 million manufacturing facility, we’d be making the same efforts.”

It was the second big bond issue WEDFA had brokered for the Northwest Detention Center. In 2003, GEO’s predecessor in Tacoma – the Correctional Services Corp. – used the reduced-cost state-aided financing to build the original 156,000-square foot facility. The 10-year bond issue saved the federal prison contractor more than a half million dollars in interest payments, according to estimates.

Four years later, when GEO expanded the facility by 105,000 square feet to help win a lucrative new contract, the company initially didn’t seek the state’s help. But in 2011, GEO came back to WEDFA seeking refinancing for the two-year-old expansion.

The reduced-cost, $54.4 million bond issue by WEDFA offered GEO a low-interest, fixed rate loan through 2018. It also saved the company borrowing costs, with an interest rate about 1.5 percent lower than comparable loans, Wendt said.

Estimating exactly how much the 2011 transaction will save GEO in the long run would likely be “misleading,” Wendt said, though he said it likely is more than $500,000.

For WEDFA, GEO’s application posed several challenges. The prison company’s triple B credit rating – a by-product of the inherent risks of the controversial private prison industry – fell below the authority’s typical underwriting standards.

But GEO planned to get bond insurance – not available through commercial loans – that would raise its rating to within standards and create additional borrowing cost savings.

Unlike in 2003, when a Tacoma city councilman acting on his own issued a letter to WEDFA purporting the city’s “continued support” for the facility, no such formal statement of local support existed for financing the detention center expansion.

Wendt tried to obtain a statement of support from the city. In August 2011, he sent a pre-drafted resolution to Tacoma’s then-assistant economic development director Martha Anderson.

“It is the policy of the WEDFA board only to issue bonds in support of projects that would be welcomed by the local community,” Wendt wrote. “As part of the issuance process, therefore, we would like the Tacoma City Council, as the planning jurisdiction, to consider passage of a Planning Jurisdiction Approval Resolution, in form substantially attached.”

Anderson replied such a resolution would take time and stir controversy.

“I told him I could take it to the council, but don’t expect it to sail through,” she said. “There’d likely be a lot of citizen opposition.”

Because the bond transaction amounted to refinancing an old project, “there really weren’t any new jobs created,” Anderson added.

But when Wendt presented the project to his board of directors, he gave a different view about job creation. The detention center’s expansion had occurred two years earlier, but Wendt calculated the 146 jobs created then as “new positions.”

“The facility’s expansion is what caused the job expansion,” he said. “That’s what WEDFA was financing.”

By then, Wendt had dropped his pursuit of a formal statement of support from the city. Instead, a GEO executive informed Wendt in a Nov. 15, 2011 email that the company hoped to submit “two awareness letters from local politicians within the next week.”

The company gave a tour of the detention center to Connie Ladenburg and Laurie Jinkins, two freshman Democratic state representatives whose districts included parts of Tacoma.

Jinkins later sent a thank-you letter to GEO’s warden for the tour. It cited her “serious concerns” about national immigration policy, adding “the mere existence of your facility does not represent the civil rights orientation I want our nation to have.”

 

But Jinkins also acknowledged the detention center’s economic contributions to her district, including $16 million in payroll taxes, $2.2 million in property, sales and other taxes and $859,000 in local utility payments.

“Jobs and revenue are the priority during this Legislative cycle,” she wrote. “GEO’s contribution is meaningful.”

GEO later included Jinkins’ letter in its application for WEDFA financing as proof of local support.

During a recent interview, Jinkins recalled Joan Mell, an old law school classmate who represents GEO, reached out to her to set up the detention center tour. As part of it, Jinkins also later met with bond officials.

“It was a really weird meeting,” Jinkins said. “They said, ‘So, you’re really supportive of the detention center.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m really not.’”

Jinkins said she doesn’t recall if GEO or WEDFA officials specifically asked her to write the letter, or whether anyone ever told her it would later be used to help GEO secure financing for its facility.

“I don’t know if I really realized that,” Jinkins said. “But I wrote the letter, so I guess they can use it how they want to.”

Likewise, Ladenburg didn’t recall being asked to write a letter, adding she didn’t write one nor would have, if asked.

“If they wanted a letter in favor of the expansion, I doubt I would write anything,” said Ladenburg, who sat on the City Council during GEO’s expansion of the detention center. “I wasn’t a big fan of that when they built it, to be honest. When they came to us originally, 10 or 12 years ago, they said it was only for 500 people. Now, its 1,500 people. We’ve basically got another prison in our community.”

Jinkins’ letter, along with the fact the city had issued construction permits for the expansion, likely was “sufficient” to satisfy WEDFA’s local support requirement, Wendt said.

“But the reality is that the local support that was most essential was the support that took place at the time that the original bond transaction was done (in 2003),” he added, “because that’s what sort of built the core of the facility.”

At the time, such support included a three-year-old nonbinding City Council resolution and a 2003 letter from Councilman Kevin Phelps, who wrote of Tacoma’s “continued support” for the project. But by then, the council had partly turned over and Tacoma’s new mayor opposed the detention center.

Still, WEDFA cited the letter again, eight years later, as proof of local support for the project.

When the authority’s board finally considered approval of the expansion refinancing in 2011, one board member – a representative of the state’s agriculture department – raised questions about negative press surrounding The GEO Group she found during a Google search.

The basic Internet search for GEO reveals a spotty track record for the company, with allegations of assaults, suicides, riots and at least one murder at some of GEO’s 114 facilities worldwide. A 2008 report alleging human rights violations at the Northwest Detention Center also readily pops up in search engine searches.

Wendt stressed it wasn’t the board’s place to weigh in on the controversies surrounding federal immigration policies.

“The important thing is this facility and project is good for economic development and provides high-quality jobs,” he told the panel.

The board later unanimously approved the transaction. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a resolution committing the proceeds from the deal to GEO.

A bond, a challenge

Ten thousand dollars: Not the bond amount Oscar and his lawyer had hoped for.

“The judge cited his prior record for setting the high amount,” Kratz said. “I think it’s too high for us.”

The news came on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Oscar’s two school-age children woke at 6 a.m. and took off school to attend their father’s bond hearing. His oldest daughter, America, and her boyfriend, Arturo, picked the kids up on South Hill and drove them to the Northwest Detention Center so they could attend. Two of Oscar’s sisters – Odilia and Luisa Campos – also met them there, bringing their own children.

The extended family passed through a security checkpoint, then silently gathered in a crowded waiting room. Guards monitored a locked door that opened into a cinder block hallway leading to the in-custody courtrooms where detainees stand before judges.

But some of the family arrived late. They didn’t get to see Oscar being led into the courtroom with more than a dozen other brown-skinned men clad in blue uniforms. For the next hour, he and his lawyer waited for a hearing that was over in a matter of minutes.

Afterward, Oscar’s family conferred with the attorney. If the family couldn’t raise the money, she told them, Oscar would likely face a deportation hearing in about a month.

“I don’t know if we can afford it,” America said. “We’ll try to find the money somewhere.”

America quickly shifted her concerns to her father’s well-being.

“It’s horrible in there,” she said of the detention center. “It’s completely different than the actual jail. My dad says it was much better in jail. People looked out for each other. Here, it’s everyone for himself.”

Oscar’s sisters shook their heads about the prospects for raising their brother’s bond money. It’s a shame, they said. Oscar is the only one of four siblings now settled in Pierce County who doesn’t have a green card or citizenship, Odilia added.

“Oscar always worked so hard,” she said. “He’s just like our father. He always worked two or three jobs. He always put his family first. I hope we can get him out.”

If they couldn’t, Oscar’s odds weren’t good: On average, about 65 percent of immigrants held inside the Northwest Detention Center over the past four years have been deported.

No written agreements

For eight years, the Northwest Detention Center has consistently violated a provision in its federal contract that calls for the facility to hold formal agreements with local governments about how to respond to certain emergencies.

City officials and administrators for the private prison contractor that run the detention center have known about the requirement for years, yet it remains unaddressed.

“The Contractor shall have written agreements with appropriate state and local authorities that will allow the Contractor to make requests for assistance in the event of any emergency incident that would adversely affect the community,” the federal contract states.

Such Memoranda of Understanding, or MOUs, are supposed to clearly spell out the roles and responsibilities – and cost-recovery protocols for them – for any special assistance or services provided by local government to the detention center during riots, catastrophes or other emergency events.

Such emergency situations aren’t merely theoretical. In 2007, more than 900 pounds vaporized of poisonous chlorine gas leaked from the Pioneer Americas bleach plant at the Port of Tacoma, sending at least 38 people to area hospitals. The lock-down detention center was just outside the evacuation zone designated for the potentially deadly gas plume.

Two years later, an uprising erupted inside the detention center. Guards used pepper-spray on detainees who refused to follow orders to go to bed. An ICE spokeswoman later reported no one was seriously injured.

Lowell Clark, a GEO employee and the detention center’s warden, said the facility has its contractually required emergency evacuation plan in place – in case of such events as a tsunami – but he declined to produce it or share details.

A corporate spokesman for GEO also has generally stated the facility “provides a safe and secure environment for its detainee population and staff.”

Interim Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan said records indicate the Fire Department reviewed an evacuation plan for the detention center in 2005, but the city doesn’t have a copy of the plan on record. In 2007, the Fire Department also conducted an evacuation drill there, Duggan said. But the chief added that GEO and his department have no formalized agreements.

The federal government did not provide The News Tribune with copies of any emergency plans or agreements for the facility in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act Request. A similar request made to the City of Tacoma drew a response that no such agreements exist.

They should.

Shortly before the detention center opened in 2004, Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell met with George Wigen, then a Correctional Services Corp. employee who worked as the facility’s first warden.

“According to Mr. Wigen, entering into an MOU with local jurisdictions is mandated by Immigration,” Ramsdell later wrote in an email to city officials.

“They are seeking the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to be secondary to us. Since the facility will be located within the City we will have primary responsibility to investigate crimes that occur within. Obviously, we do not know as of yet what the impacts will be.”

 

In April 2004, Wigen sent a draft agreement to the city’s legal department for review. It detailed “typical assistance” the contractor might need from the city while operating the detention center, including help from the Police Department’s bomb squad, K-9 team, hostage negotiators and help with disturbances, crowd control and officer training.

An assistant city attorney worked on the draft, and city fire and police officials assured council members at the time that the agreements would be put in place, records show. But they never were. City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said recently an assistant city attorney had exchanged several drafts with the prison contractor.

“But at some point, they stopped responding,” Pauli said. “The drafts just stopped being exchanged. And there’s no way we can force them into an agreement.”

Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer recently said the county has no agreements with GEO, either.

“We do not have a MOU or an agreement for any of that,” Troyer wrote in an email last month.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently said the detention center’s current owner has tried to get written agreements with the city in place.

“Each year, The GEO Group sends an official correspondence to fulfill that contract obligation,” spokesman Andrew Munoz said. “But so far, they’ve done it without any success.”

Pauli said she isn’t aware of any such letters.

“I certainly haven’t seen or received them,” she said.

As of this month, a city-wide public records request was unable to find any letters from GEO citing the contract provision.

Earlier this year, Tacoma Fire Chief Ron Stephens estimated it cost his department about $60,000 in 2011 to respond to basic calls for service to the Northwest Detention Center – mostly due to false fire alarms and emergency medical calls.

Likewise, Tacoma police have responded to the detention center 103 times from 2007 to 2011, including for various calls of assaults, sex offenses, suicide attempts and demonstrations.

Conversations about recapturing costs borne by the city have been raised time and again since the detention facility opened eight years ago. But such discussions mostly have gone nowhere.

After Stephens’ statements earlier this year, city staff analyzed ways to recapture public safety costs, including imposing a special tax or regulatory license fee on “private for-profit prisons.” But staffers concluded the city’s options were limited and would recoup only a fraction of the costs anyway.

Creating a special fee similar to the one Tacoma imposes on hotels would generate less than $900 per year from the Northwest Detention Center. The city couldn’t single out the facility to impose or raise any other regulatory fees – say for false fire alarms or annual building inspections – without doing the same to some other businesses.

“When we get into regulatory fees, we have to be very careful in terms of what we’re regulating and to be fair,” Assistant City Manager Tansy Hayward said.

Some city officials, including Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Deputy Mayor Joe Lonergan, have expressed caution about potentially singling out a business that’s a proven financial asset to city coffers.

Last year, GEO paid more than $1.1 million in annual property taxes on its East J Street site, assessed in 2012 at about $72 million. The City of Tacoma estimates the facility also generated about $160,000 in annual business and occupation tax revenues in 2011.

Police and fire responses provided to the detention center in recent years have involved only basic services that any citizen or business in Tacoma would get, public safety officials said. The provision in the federal contract that calls for the detention center to have written agreements aims to deal with larger-scale emergencies.

It’s true the contract provision remains unaddressed, Hayward said. But she noted GEO “is not accountable to (the city) for this contract,” but to the federal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Munoz, the ICE spokesman, said that because “GEO is making a good-faith effort of fulfilling that (contractual) obligation” -- by routinely sending letters city officials say don’t exist -- his agency is satisfied.

Meantime, city police and fire officials are open to working with GEO on such emergency planning, Hayward said.

Duggan, the interim fire chief who took over after Stephens’ recent retirement, said he plans to invite detention center officials into discussions about implementing a planned “early warning system” for evacuating the port area. But that system isn’t meant as a warning beacon for the locked-down facility, he added. It’s meant to warn people who may be outdoors, working or driving in the area when an emergency strikes, he said.

City officials insist Tacoma has done all it can within its limited authority over the years to address an “essential public facility” that largely falls outside of its jurisdiction.

But to activist Tim Smith, the neglected contract requirement is a leverage point the city can use to demand more accountability.

“The bottom line concern is: How do we get 1,500 people off the Tideflats in a lahar,” said Smith, referring to one risk in a long list facing the detention center.

Smith, who leads the Bill of Right Defense Committee-Tacoma activist group that routinely protests at the detention center, contends the city hasn’t done enough to find out how GEO plans to save hundreds of detainees and employees should catastrophe strike.

“Until we know what their plan is, I don’t think we should stop (asking questions),” he said.

Getting out

At daybreak on a gray morning in late September 2011, Cesar Campos Estrada shivered on a sidewalk outside the Northwest Detention Center, clutching an envelope containing his brother’s freedom.

“The whole family, friends, a lot of people pitched in,” the South Tacoma mechanic said. “You ask who you know; it’s a community thing. My oldest sister, Luisa, she came up with the most. But it was difficult. It’s a lot of money, $10,000.”

By fully raising Oscar’s bond in cash, the family avoided a bail-bond agency’s typically high surcharge and the hassle of signing over a home mortgage or credit card for security.

Cesar took the money and the morning off from work to bail out his big brother. At 7 a.m., he arrived at the detention center with the envelope and a false expectation.

The process would take maybe four hours, Cesar thought. Instead, a guard informed him he’d have to wait two hours before that process could even begin.

“I couldn’t get any information,” Cesar said. “I checked their website, I called again and again. ICE wasn’t helpful at all. So, I finally get here at 7, and they tell me it’s not open until 9.”

Cesar also learned the federal court accepted only cashier’s checks – not cash – for bond payments. Before Cesar left to find a bank, his niece, America, arrived to meet him. More than an hour later, the expectant mother explained that a bout with morning sickness caused her delay.

“We were going to take dad home and surprise the family,” she said. “They don’t know he’s getting bailed out today.”

Five months had passed since Oscar last embraced his children as a free man. His daughter had hoped he’d finally be able to do so once again that morning. But the bond process proved trickier than expected. The family reunion would have to wait.

“Some things are worth waiting for,” America said.

'Like I'm alive again'

Shortly after 4:30 p.m., an automatic gate jolted open and a group of men who in recent days had been known officially by serial numbers stepped onto a public sidewalk to reclaim their given names.

One by one, men’s names were shouted by voices in the crowd assembled past the fence line to greet them.

In a group assembled for a detainee named Oscar, Cesar saw his brother first.

There he is, he told his toddler nephew, Jasiel. There’s your papa!

With the deliberate steps of a 2-year old, the boy advanced toward a beaming man. Oscar steadily closed the gap.

His bear hug lifted a pair of small shoes from the earth, consummating father’s reunion with son. As the boy’s sobbing mother approached, Oscar fumbled a folder in his hands. Paperwork about his immigration case that he’d accumulated over several months fluttered to the ground. Oscar barely noticed.

“I feel like I’m alive again,” he said later.

The family headed to an apartment on Tacoma’s East Side, where Maria’s sister had put her and Jasiel up in Oscar’s absence. Without her boyfriend’s paycheck, Maria wasn’t able to keep up with rent at the family’s own apartment. She moved out and sold most of the couple’s possessions a month earlier.

Later that night and the next morning, Oscar would celebrate his freedom with other family members, including his three oldest children.

But the partying would be short-lived. With no income and two families to feed, Oscar needed to find work.

“My back’s against the wall,” he said.

Inside the center

Eight years after it opened, what initially was sold to Tacoma as a 500-bed facility has exploded into one of the largest federal immigration detention centers in the United States.

The Northwest Detention Center now ranks fourth nationally in “average daily population” of detainees among federal immigration detention facilities, trailing only centers in Texas, Georgia and Arizona.

It also rates in the top 3 percent in the U.S. for the number of immigrants it deports each year among more than 650 facilities used to detain unauthorized aliens.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said in a recent email that each of the facility’s expansions over the years have come for good reason.

“ICE determined that NWDC’s capacity was below mission needs,” an agency spokesman wrote.

During a tour of the center last year, a lawyer from the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project – a group that provides legal aid to immigrants in Washington – presented a “know your rights” lecture to eight detainees seated in molded plastic chairs in a cinder block room draped in fluorescent lighting.

In Spanish, the lawyer told detainees what to expect while in lock-up. For the first-timers, there would be a bond hearing in one of the three federal courtrooms on site, he said. Those who had been deported before won’t get a hearing, they’d simply be removed.

Most detainees facing deportation will get a chance to fight their removal – or acquiesce to it – during a formal merits hearing. If a judge ultimately orders deportation, the lawyer added, you’ll likely leave quickly: Two removal flights depart each week from Boeing Field, just up the freeway.

At the time, most of the flights were bound for Harlingen, a small Texas city on the Gulf Coast about 40 minutes north of the Mexican border. From there, detainees are bused to Brownsville, then dropped off to walk the final few hundred yards back into Mexico, through the gang-infested city of Matamoros.

A small percentage of detainees – a few dozen immigrants unable to post bond who opt to appeal their removals while in detention, or immigrants whose countries of citizenship won’t accept their return – have been held here for a year or longer, Lorie Dankers, then an ICE spokeswoman, said last year.

A convicted sex offender from Russia – a country that refuses to accept nationals convicted of certain offenses while abroad – has been held here for several years, one official confirmed.

Likewise, under a federal court ruling, illegal immigrants from Somalia can’t be removed because, with no functioning government, the war-torn nation can’t accept deportees, Dankers said. If they have no other pending offenses, Somali immigrants are typically processed and released, she said.

But on average, most detainees spend about 36 days here -- about 10 days more than the average length of stay in immigration lock-ups around the nation. On average, about 65 percent of them left the facility by deportation over the last four complete years. Most detainees – nearly 90 percent, according to a Justice Department report in 2007 – don’t have legal representation. Public defenders are not provided.

The deported detainees are quickly replaced by new arrivals, as America’s immigration enforcement wheel keeps turning. Nationwide, 30,000 immigrants are detained on any given day.

Such churn is what makes this place tick, noted Lowell Clark, who took over as warden in 2011. With an average detainee population hovering around 1,200 last year, that churn is constant.

“Fifteen hundred and seventy five (beds) is our operating capacity,” said Clark, who spent 26 years with the Utah Department of Corrections before coming to Tacoma. “We hit 1,400 last year for a week, then fell.”

The number constantly fluctuates, but the Northwest Detention Center’s population has soared above 1,400 several times in 2012. Such spikes have occurred even after ICE changed its national enforcement priorities to focus on detaining primarily illegal immigrants with criminal convictions.

“ICE doesn’t anticipate a significant change to (NWDC) operations other than the detainee population makeup shifting as ICE concentrates on removing more criminal aliens,” said local ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz. “The majority of whom, if not for their immigration status and ICE’s statutory authority to detain them, would be free to re-offend in the community.”

In all, nearly 83,000 detainees – overwhelmingly undocumented immigrants with minor or no criminal records – have passed through the Tacoma detention center’s doors, with nearly 52,000 of them sent back to their countries of origin. Thousands of immigrants from across the Northwest and beyond continue to funnel through a building that remains among the nation’s largest facilities of its kind.

“We’ve never been at capacity,” Clark said last year, even though a GEO memo to Tacoma Police in 2006 showed 27 more detainees were held at one time than the detention center’s then-capacity. “That’s foresight on ICE’s part: When ICE identifies a need, GEO builds more beds.”

An uncertain future

A dank odor permeated the ground-level apartment in Midland, signaling water seeping somewhere beneath what looks like new carpet. Oscar Campos Estrada worried about mold.

Since he moved his girlfriend and son into the family’s new apartment in January, Oscar had struggled to pay the $750 per month rent. He had been selling homemade Mexican cheese for pocket cash – but he needed a steady paycheck.

After his release from the Northwest Detention Center four months ago, Oscar met with his former boss at the cabinet-making shop in Lakewood. But his old job vanished during the ongoing recession.

To find new work, Oscar now needed to raise $6,000. One thousand would pay off the fines, fees and high-risk insurance he’ll need to hold a valid driver’s license. The rest of the money would pay his immigration lawyer, who could then set up a fingerprinting session with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help Oscar obtain a legal work permit. The one-year permit is available to undocumented aliens with pending deportation cases.

Oscar knew that, without a driver’s license, his prospects for work were bleak. Still, he was committed not to drive again until he’s legal.

“I don’t want to take any chances again,” he said. “So I walk to the store, I take the bus, whatever. I don’t drive.”

It was driving without a license that landed him in jail – and under an immigration hold that sent him to the detention center and into deportation proceedings last year. The same offense led to deportation for his girlfriend’s cousin in late January, he said.

Meantime, Oscar’s own case lingered in uncertainty. He had yet to get a court date for his removal proceedings. But he was in no rush.

“I still may end up getting deported,” he said. “But at least I’m out here now, with my family.”

He motioned to his girlfriend, Maria, and his toddler son, Jasiel, playing in a spartanly decorated living room. Other than two wall hangings – a family photo and a small print of Jesus – the walls were bare.

The date was Feb. 6 – Jasiel’s third birthday. Three days earlier, Oscar was at St. Joseph Medical Center for another birthday – that of his first grandchild.

“I don’t have the money to buy him (Jasiel) a big present or even a cake, but I was here to give him a big hug and say, ‘Happy Birthday son,’ ” Oscar said. “And when my daughter gave birth to my granddaughter, I was in the delivery room.

“Those are the prizes. They can deport me if they want, but they aren’t going to take that away from me.”

Oscar Campos Estrada smiled. Today, he is still living in the United States. Today, he is still living his dream.

Oscar Campos Estrada proudly shows off his newly issued Employment Authorization Card from the Department of Homeland Security. Estrada's three year-old son Jasiel, is at right.
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

CHAPTER FIVE: A glimmer of hope for former NWDC inmate

An undocumented Mexican national living near Tacoma has bounced between life’s personal milestones and a pending procedural reality since his release on bond a year ago from the Northwest Detention Center.

Oscar Campos Estrada has witnessed the birth of his first grandchild and paid off $1,500 in fines and fees to renew his Washington driver’s license since departing Tacoma’s federal immigration lockup last September.

He has escorted his oldest son cross-state for freshman orientation at Eastern Washington University, watched his youngest son get baptized and learned he’ll be a new father for a fifth time early next year.

He also has legally obtained a Social Security card and a valid permit to work for up to one year in the United States – accoutrements Oscar and his family will need while he fights to stay here.

The special employment authorization card came after federal immigration officials launched removal proceedings against the 39-year-old laborer, who slipped across the U.S. border more than 21 years ago.

“I’ve been trying half my life to get legal; now after they decide they want to deport me, they give me this,” said Oscar, holding the work permit. “And that’s why I say immigration laws are twisted.”

The Department of Homeland Security issued the work permit to Oscar while federal justice authorities seek to expel him for his illegal status and a misdemeanor criminal record, which includes convictions for drunken driving and fourth-degree assault. Oscar awaits a formal removal hearing to decide whether he’ll get to stay in this country or must leave it. He’ll have that hearing date set later this month.

Federal immigration officials say such work permits can be issued to illegal aliens under certain circumstances, including when a noncitizen is facing deportation. The permit also can help illegal immigrants to legally obtain a Social Security card.

“If someone has reason to stay in the U.S. because of some kind of pending legal action, it’s better in the interest of the people of the U.S. for that person to have an employment authorization,” said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. “It’s done so they have a way to support themselves.”

Oscar’s recent experiences have coincided with a radically evolving landscape of American immigration policies and enforcement priorities. Such changes will have little or no impact on Oscar’s case, but they will factor prominently in the lives of tens of thousands of people among the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now living in this country. They also could mean changing population trends are in store for the immigration detention center in Tacoma.

Young get reprieve

In June, President Barack Obama announced a two-year executive order to defer deportations for some young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as kids, then raised here.

Called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the initiative could grant temporary legal status to an estimated 1.4 million people – including as many as about 40,000 in Washington – allowing them to legally work, go to school and obtain certain benefits.

Federal immigration authorities began to implement the new initiative last month, with thousands of illegal immigrants packing into government centers nationwide to apply for the program.

Eligible candidates must have arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and have been 30 or younger as of June 15. They must have been enrolled in school or the military since coming to the U.S., and they can’t have significant criminal records.

Obama’s order, which headlined some of the past year’s policy changes, comes during an election year and amid ongoing debate about federal immigration policies.

Some activists say the president has failed to deliver on campaign vows in 2008 for meaningful immigration reform. Others, such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, have denounced changes under his administration as undermining federal laws meant to protect against immigration violators.

All the while, the number of illegal immigrants being expelled from the nation has climbed to an all-time high. Last fiscal year, the U.S. deported 396,906 people – a single-year record. Overall, the Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants during a single term than any other president.

John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), says the latest deportation figures reflect the administration’s “smart and effective” approach to upholding federal immigration laws and protecting the public.

Shifts in the bureau’s priorities have helped the federal government better utilize some $2.5 billion spent annually to enforce, detain and deport, Morton has said.

ICE’s new enforcement focus targets illegal immigrants who have criminal convictions, pose national security threats or who’ve recently or repeatedly crossed borders. Fifty-five percent of last fiscal year’s removed immigrants had convictions – the highest percentage in almost a decade.

“These year-end totals indicate that we are making progress, with more convicted criminals, recent border crossers, egregious immigration law violators and immigration fugitives being removed from the country than ever before,” Morton said in a statement last October.

Critics say ICE’s statistics skew reality. The bureau defines an alien “criminal” as any illegal immigrant convicted for any criminal offense, no matter how slight. While ICE stressed removals last year of convicts with violent felony and drunken driving convictions, the vast majority of deportees continue to be misdemeanant offenders, not serious criminals.

“It’s really hard to make a good assessment of what (the) offenses are, but a disproportionate number are minor,” said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, a group that provides legal aid for immigrants in Washington.

“So when ICE says 92 percent of those removed are ‘priorities’ and people think, ‘Good, those are all serious criminals,’ well. no. Driving with a suspended license – that’s a criminal alien, too.”

Prosecutorial discretion

Last year, Morton issued two memos to ICE agents nationwide, providing guidelines for the bureau’s new emphasis on using “prosecutorial discretion” in removal enforcement.

“When ICE favorably exercises prosecutorial discretion, it essentially decides not to assert the full scope of the enforcement authority available to the agency in a given case,” he wrote.

The memos went on to detail “certain classes of individuals that warrant particular care” when ICE officials determine when and how fully to enforce civil immigration violations.

Children, the elderly, nursing and pregnant women, the disabled, and victims of domestic violence and other serious crimes are included on that list.

Late last year, ICE officials were directed to weigh such discretionary factors in reviewing more than 300,000 cases pending in U.S. immigration courts, with an aim toward closing cases and eliminating a massive backlog.

That examination remains ongoing, but the latest figures show ICE has closed few cases. As of July, about 7,200 cases – less than 2 percent of those reviewed – had been administratively closed. At the same time, more than 111,000 new cases have been filed since the program began, meaning the court backlog has grown.

Seattle-area case closures have fared slightly better than national ones, with about 5 percent of the roughly 5,200 cases reviewed so far being closed.

But in Tacoma, of about 600 pending cases reviewed so far, only one has been closed.

Advocates have since decried the program as largely inadequate.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Baron said. “But it’s also been disappointing.”

Meantime, ICE agents on the front lines are employing a new law enforcement sharing tool, largely expanded by Obama, in their mission to ferret out and remove “priority” aliens.

Under the Secure Communities program, the FBI now regularly sends fingerprints to ICE of people arrested and booked into local jails.

For years, local law enforcement has fed such information to the FBI for routine checks, but now locals are required to run them for comparison against federal immigration databases.

The program’s aim is for ICE to immediately locate unlawful immigrants at their point of local contact with the justice system. It uses technology to advance existing partnerships between ICE and local police agencies, in which the bureau has employed jail roster checks and other information-sharing to help track illegal immigrants.

Once voluntary, Secure Communities will become mandatory next year. In Washington, it expanded from four counties to all 39 in April. Its expansion came after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most of Arizona’s SB1070, except for the so-called “papers please” provision authorizing police to stop people and demand proof of immigration status. That immigration law drew political foes nationwide, including on the Tacoma City Council, which passed a resolution in 2010 to condemn the measure on a split council vote.

Likewise, Secure Communities doesn’t come without its detractors.

Immigrant groups have launched a national campaign decrying the program, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a plan in July that would limit his city’s full participation.

Elsewhere, identifying illegal immigrants has been ramping up under the program. In all, nearly 200,000 people have been expelled nationwide under the program since 2008.

So far in Washington, ICE has deported 634 people under Secure Communities through June. Illegal immigrants in Pierce County accounted for 17 of those removals, but most of them – 13 – were immigrants with misdemeanor offenses.

To critics, the statistics run counter to ICE’s stated goal of targeting only “high priority” cases.

“With Secure Communities, you’re going to catch more people, but you’re going to catch more who are low priority,” Baron said.

Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said his department hasn’t yet studied the local impact, but added that the program could prove successful.

“Potential advantage is that it does provide more consequences for those who commit serious crimes in the community and happen to be illegally in the country,” Troyer said.

What about the center?

What the enforcement changes will mean to the Northwest Detention Center remains unclear.

Andrew Munoz, ICE’s local spokesman, said his agency doesn’t “anticipate any significant changes to operations, other than the detainee population makeup shifting as ICE concentrates on removing more criminal aliens.”

Under ICE’s current contract with The GEO Group, the detention center’s private owner, ICE must maintain a minimum detainee population of 1,181 at a rate of $100.65 per day.

ICE officials say that only means GEO is guaranteed to be paid for 1,181 beds, whether or not ICE uses them.

In fact, last year’s “average daily population” at the Tacoma immigration lockup was 1,174 – below the contract minimum.

But so far this year, population figures have been significantly higher. Through mid-July, the Northwest Detention Center’s daily population averaged 1,318 detainees, with their numbers breaking the 1,400 mark on several occasions.

Last fiscal year, while the nation’s deportation figures soared to record levels, the number of immigrants removed from the Northwest dropped to its lowest levels in five years.

In all, 7,607 people were deported in 2011 from Washington, Oregon and Alaska – a 30 percent drop from the facility’s peak in 2008, when more than 10,900 people were removed from the three states.

But the numbers are selective. They don’t count deportees who came to Tacoma’s detention facility from other parts of the country. As of July 7, at least 165 illegal immigrants picked up in other areas of the country were being held at the Northwest Detention Center while facing deportation.

As the nation’s fourth-largest immigration lockup and with a 1,575-bed capacity, the center increasingly has been able to accommodate overflow detainees from elsewhere.

Advocates say such transfers can cause hardships to families, prevent detainees from accessing legal representation and otherwise interfere with the ability to build a legal defense.

Earlier this year, ICE issued a new directive meant to “minimize detainee transfers outside of the area of responsibility to the greatest extent possible.”

Another change now being phased in at the Northwest Detention Center and other immigration lockups is new “performance based national detention standards,” which ICE issued last year.

The revised standards were crafted to improve detainees’ access to health care, legal services, religious opportunities and to make other safety and welfare improvements.

The new standards are still being implemented in Tacoma, ICE officials have said. The latest compliance inspection of the facility, done in January, was based on standards written in 2008. Inspectors found three operational deficiencies at the Tacoma facility related to use of force and medical paperwork issues.

Overall, the inspection determined the center “to be a well managed detention facility.”

In Midland

On a hot August evening, Oscar Campos Estrada rolled up to a low-rent apartment complex in Midland in a minivan bearing a red “EWU Dad” sticker in its rear window.

Inside a modest unit upstairs, his girlfriend, Maria, and 3-year-old son, Jasiel, waited for him. A key turned a lock, a thin door flung open, and instantly, a boy wrapped his small arms around a father’s legs.

“Papa!” Jasiel squealed.

Oscar was tired. Today, he worked a 10-hour shift on a seasonal construction job that pays him $15 an hour for up to 12 hours per day, seven days a week.

Renewing his driver’s license a few months back – Washington is one of two states that issues full driving privileges to illegal immigrants – has enabled him to legally drive the 80-mile round-trip each day to his worksite in King County.

With his new federal employment card, Oscar hopes to land a permanent job closer to home.

He still owes his immigration attorney about $4,500 – a fee he’s paying off in installments. He owes another $7,000 in back child support payments missed during his five-month stint last year in the Pierce County Jail and Northwest Detention Center.

And more bills are coming.

“We’re expecting another baby in February,” Oscar said. “Times are tough, but we don’t want to raise a single child.”

The new arrival will be Oscar’s fifth child – the second with his current partner, Maria.

“That’s all for me,” he laughed. “I’m done.”

Oscar’s four children, ranging in age from 3 to 20, all were born in Pierce County, making them all American citizens. But should Oscar be deported, his family will split. His kids from his first marriage will stay, while he and his new family will go.

“We’ll move back to Mexico,” he said. “I’ll have to start over. There’s no other option.”

For a time, when Oscar faced a potentially more imminent departure, he believed all but the oldest of his children would be forced to go with him to Mexico. Oscar has since rethought that idea.

On Sept. 28, Oscar is scheduled to attend a master calendar hearing in federal immigration court in Seattle, where a judge is expected to set the date for his deportation proceedings. Amid a backlog of cases, it could take three to seven months before Oscar’s case is heard.

His lawyer is prepared to argue that Oscar should have a green card by now and be well on his way to obtaining citizenship. Federal prosecutors are certain to detail Oscar’s illegal entry and multiple misdemeanor criminal convictions – grounds for his removal that also might become an eventual obstacle to future admissibility.

For Oscar, the odds don’t bode well. Federal law limits the number of deportation orders that can be canceled or suspended each year to just 4,000. About 100 times that many immigrants are deported each year.

If his argument fails, Oscar will turn to his daughter, America, for help. Next year, she will turn 21. The milestone will make her eligible as a qualifying family-based sponsor who can submit a new green card eligibility petition on Oscar’s behalf.

“That’s Plan B,” Oscar said.

It’s a plan that could also take years to realize. As of this month, illegal immigrants from Mexico with petitions filed as long ago as 1993 are just now becoming eligible to obtain green cards. An immigrant with a petition filed sometime next year likely would wait in a queue for at least a dozen years or longer.

Meantime, Oscar Campos Estrada will try to keep life in order, but take it as it comes.

“Sure, I’m afraid,” he said. “But you know what they say, ‘Prepare for the worst, expect the best.’ What else can I do?”

InvestigateWest reporter Carol Smith and News Tribune reporter Sean Robinson contributed to this report.

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