Can Tacoma Detention Center Handle An Influx Of New Deportation Cases?

Feb 23, 2017

The Trump administration is signaling it will ramp up deportations of undocumented immigrants, which could put pressure on our country's system of holding and removing them. 

Before people are deported, federal authorities often hold them in detention centers. Our region's Northwest Detention Center, in Tacoma, has 1,575 beds.

But are those beds full? How much room is left for new detainees?

Information about the center's operations is hard to come by, in part because it's run by a private company under contract with the U.S. government.

That company, the GEO Group, Inc., referred questions about the center's population to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Officials with that agency said information about the center's capacity is proprietary, and cannot be released. But they say the center is not overcrowded. 

Maru Mora-Villalpando said she has anecdotal reasons to question that. She leads an activist group called Latino Advocacy, and stays in touch with people held at the Northwest Detention Center. 

"People have been complaining for a while now that they're overcrowded," she said. "One of the ways we found out is because people complain about the smaller portions. And the GEO guards' response to that was, 'There's too many of you. We don't have enough food for all of you.'" 

Mora-Villalpando also said detainees have reported being moved to solitary confinement to make room for new arrivals in the center's 20 housing pods. 

A GEO Group representative said reports of overcrowding are untrue.

"Our company strongly denies allegations of crowded conditions," said the company's vice president of corporate relations, Pablo Paez. "The Northwest Detention Center provides highly-rated services pursuant to national standards set by the federal government and in compliance with independent accreditation standards."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it has an "aggressive inspections program" for its detention centers to ensure they adhere to rules called the Performance-Based National Detention Standards

Detention centers could soon see a spike in demand. A Feb. 20 Department of Homeland Security memorandum outlined broader categories of people considered priorities for deportation. It also called for more of them to be detained, rather than released, while they await deportation hearings. 

The memorandum called for the expansion of detention centers, like the one in Tacoma. The Northwest Detention Center was already expanded once, in 2009, from 1,030 beds to 1,575.

And Department of Homeland Security leaders said more immigration judges are needed. The federal Executive Office of Immigration Review has 301 judges who hear the nation's immigration cases. Four judges hear all the cases in Tacoma, including one who works via teleconference. 

The GEO Group signed a contract in October 2015 to run the center for another nine and a half years. At the time, the company said the center was expected to generate $57 million a year in revenue.