A rare look inside Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center

By September 9, 2012February 16th, 2016No Comments

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.


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.

Read Part Two: An Immigrant Finds the American Dream — and Loses It

News Tribune reporter Sean Robinson contributed to this report.

Leave a Reply