Five to Read on Immigration

We're not the only ones looking closely at U.S. immigration policy and the many facilities around the country that process deportations. Here are five of the most incisive pieces we've read recently:

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Feminized Fish: A Side Effect Of Emerging Contaminants

Rivers in America have stopped catching on fire. Big industrial polluters have been reined in. Overall, water quality has improved under the Clean Water Act.

Clean Water: The Next Act

But for all of its successes, the landmark environmental law was never designed to control contaminants that emerged after its 1972 passage. These pollutants are affecting the environment in new and different ways.

Consider the feminized fish of Puget Sound.

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Polluting The Water With Toothpaste, Shampoo, And Drugs

OREGON CITY, Ore. — Dave Sohm’s house is immaculate. Every tool in the garage has its own hook. The kitchen countertops gleam.

But in his house –- as with most houses –- toxic chemicals are hiding in plain sight.

Sohm wants to know where. Clean Water: The Next Act

“I’m curious about what things there are,” he says. “I don’t know what impacts I may be having that I’m not even aware of.”

Jen Coleman, an outreach director for the Oregon Environmental Council is at Sohm’s house to help. Armed with a list of chemicals that have toxic effects on people and the environment, Coleman digs through cabinets, checks ingredient lists and compares them with contaminants that have been found in local waterways.

First on her list is a chemical called triclosan. It’s found in antibacterial soaps, toothpaste and deodorant. And it can be toxic to fish.

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Detention center houses few serious criminals

Most illegal immigrants who end up behind the Northwest Detention Center’s razor wire are, at worst, petty criminals. Their stays at the lockup are but brief stops on the way out of the country.

On a walk-through last year of the low-slung complex on Tacoma’s Tideflats, federal immigration officials and a privately-employed warden explained how the hundreds of men and women dressed in color-coded uniforms wound up here.

About 1,000 of the roughly 1,300 adult detainees within its walls wear blue, they said, a classification that means they have little or no criminal history. Those in blue who do have rap sheets mostly committed minor offenses – traffic offenses and other misdemeanors that likely sent them to one of the hundreds of local jails in Washington, Oregon or Alaska where immigration officials later encountered them.

Another 200 immigrants, wearing orange, have committed more serious, “mid-level” crimes, such as drug-related offenses.

The rest of the population – a mostly unseen group of about 100 segregated detainees dressed in red – are criminals with serious convictions for sex offenses, assault, even homicide.

About 75 female detainees — all of whom don yellow uniforms, but wear colored wrist-bands that correspond with security classifications — are separately housed in living pods away from the men.

Detainees come from more than 70 nations, with Mexico by far the most common country of citizenship. Most wind up in Tacoma from three Northwest states served by the facility, but at least 165 detainees held at the Northwest Detention Center as of July were transferred from other “areas of responsibility.” They included 100 detainees from the San Antonio area, 33 from three different areas in California, 30 from the Phoenix area and one each from the Salt Lake City and New Orleans areas.

A rare look inside Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center

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.

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'I can't even talk about it'

Leticia Jimenez-Diaz, 41, has two children who are U.S. citizens. But she herself is not. That fact divides her family in a way that could soon rip it apart.

Slumped at a table in a bare-walled meeting room at the Northwest Detention Center, she started to cry when a visitor asked about her children, then ages 9 and 16. She hadn’t seen them in a month and a half, ever since she was taken to the detention center for being in violation of a long-ago deportation order.

Fearful of being deported and possibly leaving her U.S.-born children behind with relatives, Leticia Jimenez-Diaz, breaks down in tears during a interview at the Northwest Detention Center. Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

It’s an order she says she did not even know about.

In 1993, immigration officers swept through the plant nursery where she was working at the time. As a result, she was supposed to appear before an immigration judge.

But she says she never got the notice to appear.

“I think that they sent the notice to the wrong place,” she said. “I never received it.”

Her attorney, Carol Edward of Carol L. Edward & Associates, confirmed records show Jimenez-Diaz missed the date of that hearing, and in her absence, an immigration judge ordered her deported to Mexico in 1994.

Unaware of that development, however, Jimenez-Diaz continued raising her young sons in Mt. Vernon. She volunteered at their schools. Helped them play soccer. She worked in the flower bulb business and took classes at Skagit Valley College to learn English.

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Is There a Right to Counsel? Class Action Suit Represents Detainees with Mental Disabilities

Detainees pass the time in one of the pods of the Northwest Detention Center's 1575-bed facility as they wait for a decision on their cases.
Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune

The legal decisions facing detained immigrants trying to represent themselves in immigration court are intimidating enough. For those with mental disabilities, they can be incomprehensible.

But a recent federal court decision could lead to a legal precedent that would give immigrants with mental impairments the right to a court-appointed attorney.

Currently, immigrants have no right to court-appointed legal representation for immigration proceedings.

“People with severe mental disabilities who are locked up in immigration detention are ground through this system without even understanding what is happening to them,” said Matt Adams, legal director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. NWIRP has taken up the cause on behalf of a severely schizophrenic man from the Ukraine, who was held at the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s Tideflats for more than two years – from April 15, 2010, until June 22, 2012.

This is in stark contrast to the American criminal justice system, which gives defendants the right to court-appointed counsel, and also has a formal system for determining whether a defendant is mentally competent to understand charges and stand trial.

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