By Jessica Partnow
April 16, 2009
On any given day, 30,000 people are being held in detention centers across the country. With plans to expand the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma well underway, Jessica Partnow finds out how the facility works and what it feels like to be detained there.
By Alex Stonehill
February 13, 2009
TACOMA, Wash. — Arms poking stiffly from an oversize blue jumpsuit, Vitaliy Budimir recounted his crimes in a hesitant voice that barely revealed his Russian origins.
Charges of cocaine possession and delivery bought him a year and a day of incarceration at Airway Heights state prison outside of Spokane. His immigration status then brought the 22-year-old permanent resident to the Northwest Detention Center — a low, gray building that sprawls across Tacoma's industrial tideflats — where he is awaiting deportation to Barnaul, Siberia, a city he hasn't seen since he was 10.
"I went to elementary through high school here," says Budimir, whose mother became a citizen when he was 19.
"I could have probably got my citizenship a long time ago, but I never thought I'd end up in this situation."
He is not alone. Since 2004, tens of thousands of suspected immigration-law violators have waited for an immigration judge to determine their fate within the white cinder-block walls of the detention center.
Their ranks include illegal immigrants, asylum-seekers, documented workers with lapsed status and legal immigrants — like Budimir — who were convicted of certain criminal offenses.
"Nationwide there is a trend to have increased detention space," says Lorie Dankers, regional spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for enforcing immigration law.
"When you let people go, oftentimes they don't show back up," says Dankers, explaining the move to incarcerate people who might previously have been released while their cases were reviewed.
Shifts in national attitudes toward immigration in the wake of 9/11 prompted the replacement of the Immigration and Naturalization Service with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, and the dramatic expansion of its budget and mandate.
In 2003, the National Fugitive Operations Program, led by ICE, was formed to locate and remove "dangerous fugitive aliens." The new emphasis on apprehensions, arrests and deportations also created the need for new detention centers. According to ICE, deportations in the Pacific Northwest have increased by 35 percent in the past year alone.
In 2004, ICE awarded GEO Group Inc. — a private corporation, self-described as the "world leader in the privatized development and/or management of correctional facilities" — a multiyear contract to build and run a 1,000-bed immigration detention center in the tideflats below Tacoma's downtown museum district.
Detention centers have their critics, and allegations of abuse of immigrant detainees from Texas to Rhode Island have been making headlines in the past year.
The Budmir family outside their Spokane home
Photo: Alex Stonehill
A report by Seattle University's School of Law International Human Rights Clinic, released last summer, accused the NWDC of mistreatment that ranged from improper nutrition to overcrowding.
Dankers rejects the report, criticizing its use of anonymous sourcing and citing regular inspections and the NWDC's consistent high marks for compliance with the American Correctional Association standards for detainee treatment.
"Nobody likes detention," says Neil Clark, who oversees ICE's detention and removal operations for Washington, Oregon and Alaska. "They could be held at the Hilton and they'd still find something to complain about."
Immigration advocates take issue with detention itself. A common complaint is that, because immigration violations are civil, not criminal, offenses, detainees do not have the right, under federal law, to a public defender.
"Immigration law is a very complicated field of law," says Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, an organization that runs legal orientations for NWDC detainees. "We are asking individuals, many of whom have limited or no English proficiency and limited formal education, to navigate the immigration laws and regulations on their own."
According to 2007 statistics from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a federal agency within the Department of Justice, 89.5 percent of detainees at the NWDC do not have legal representation.
Detention of noncriminals presents another controversy. A report released last week by The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C., found that almost three-quarters of the individuals apprehended by ICE's Fugitive Operations Program were considered noncriminals. ICE statistics show that the proportion of those deported from the Pacific Northwest who had no criminal convictions has similarly risen above 70 percent in recent years.
These statistics are demonstrated inside the walls of the NWDC, where the majority of inmates are dressed in the blue jumpsuits assigned to inmates who are not considered a security threat, as opposed to orange or red jumpsuits for those considered potentially violent.
"Immigration violations are not criminal offenses, so the presumption should be against detaining someone unless the government can demonstrate a compelling reason to do so," says Baron. "Detention has a severe impact on the individuals involved: Families are split up suddenly, children are taken away from parents, and individuals are less likely to have the tools or the wherewithal to contest deportation when the law provides them with an avenue to do so."
Incarceration at the NWDC is typically short — an average of 37 days — though stays can extend far beyond that if detainees refuse to comply with deportation orders by continuing to appeal their case.
Budimir, for one, has given up on the appeal process. He now clings to the hope that the Russian government would refuse to furnish the travel documents necessary to deport him on the grounds that having come to the U.S. at such a young age, there is very little to tie him to his home country.
If ICE cannot obtain the proper travel documents by June 12 (180 days after Budimir submitted to deportation), they will be required by law to release him. But his legal status will permanently remain "deported," and the order for his physical removal from the U.S., pending action by the Russian government, will remain for the rest of his life.
"I don't think this is fair. I'm in trouble for the first time, and I don't qualify for anything," says Budimir, the static of walkie-talkies and the slamming of heavy doors punctuating his frustration. "I'm definitely more American than Russian."
Because Budimir's criminal sentence was more than a year in prison, he automatically qualified for deportation under rules imposed during the Clinton administration.
"If a person is not a U.S. citizen, either born or naturalized, there's always a possibility that they can be removed from the country," says Dankers in response to the suggestion that many immigrants, especially those brought here as children, may not be aware of the laws that could result in their deportation. "And, you know it is unfortunate in his case, but it is the law, and we have to uphold the law fairly."
It looks as though ICE's determination to uphold those laws in the Puget Sound region continues to grow — the agency plans to expand its detention capacity in the Seattle area to 1,575 beds by October. ICE's current pre-solicitation for the construction implies competition for the job, but GEO Group's confidence that it will win the contract is emphasized by the bright yellow bulldozers and massive spiral drill rigs that have recently appeared in a fenced-off area in front of the detention center.
Tacoma's Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a citizens group founded following the spurt of security laws after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is concerned about the expansion project's possible disruption of pollutants and has filed an appeal with the city of Tacoma to try to halt construction at the site. The land beneath the detention center was previously cleaned of petroleum-contaminated soils, but there are concerns that groundwater in the area may still be tainted.
The Department of Ecology — the agency responsible for overseeing environmental issues on the land beneath the center — said no toxins have been detected.
"So far we haven't found any contamination of the groundwater and we've found that contaminated soils are being handled properly," says Joyce Mercuri, Department of Ecology site manager. "Our goal is to not let pollution be released into the environment."
GEO Group declined to comment for this story, responding only that its detention facility complies with contractual requirements and detention standards set by ICE and the ACA.
While Budimir maintained a tough-guy bravado while talking about his time in prison and the details of his case, at the mention of his family – his parents and six siblings all live in Spokane — it all disappears.
"I grew up here, this is home for me, all of my family is here, my girlfriend is here," Budimir said, stuttering over the words as he tried to choke back his emotions.
Attempting to talk again, he laced his fingers through his overgrown blond buzz cut and muttered encouragement to himself.
"It's just that everything that matters to me is here."
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