A new House bill prohibiting private, for-profit detention facilities in Washington state would force closure of the immigrant jail in Tacoma, now euphemistically named the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC). The state Legislature must support HB 1090.

The NWIPC run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the GEO Group, recently made the news for its cruel solitary confinement practices and hunger strikes. Sadly, there is even more to the story. Working with the Washington group la Resistencia, we have conducted years of personal interviews with detainees, and they suffer a range of grave problems: inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, unsanitary living conditions. Labor rights? For the privilege of cleaning the facility, among other tasks, detainees are paid $1 per day.

Over the last several years, immigrant detention centers across the U.S. have been the target of serious criticism as they cut corners to boost corporate profits. The U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security has condemned “deficient medical, dental, and mental health care,” segregation abuses and obstacles to legal counsel. The Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General has repeatedly denounced “egregious violations of detention standards.” Congress recently passed a resolution censuring medical procedures, including hysterectomies, performed on immigrant women without their informed consent at a detention center in Georgia.

This was the shocking reality even before our nation was overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, these crowded immigration facilities, already with flawed health care and unsanitary conditions, became a tinderbox ready to burst into flames. In response, Seattle University’s International Human Rights Clinic, Global Rights Advocacy and la Resistencia filed complaints with United Nations human rights institutions and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C.

Soon after, a group of UN human rights authorities urged ICE and the GEO Group to release immigrants from the NWIPC and other detention centers. The Inter-American Commission adopted a rare emergency resolution to protect the rights to life, personal integrity and health of all immigrants held in Tacoma. Both the UN and commission have monitored the situation at the NWIPC and demanded reports from governmental agencies.

Predictably, COVID-19 made its way to the NWIPC and to other detention centers and prisons around the country. Under pressure from federal courts and various advocacy campaigns, ICE has released some at-risk detainees, but also has deported many others, exacerbating the outbreak around the globe. Yet thousands remain confined throughout the U.S., including many with underlying medical conditions, which, according to the CDC, pose increased danger for severe illness.

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As for the NWIPC specifically, a Seattle federal judge found that “social distancing remains impossible and is not mandated, detainees continue to have contact with detainees from other housing units, guards are not required to wear PPE, and testing remains inadequate.” In the last several months, we have spoken to detainees who corroborated this state of affairs. We have met detainees in high-risk circumstances — suffering from cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Some were over 60 years old. All were terrified for their lives. 

As COVID-19 cases surge to all-time highs across the nation, we cannot trust the lives of detained immigrants to ICE and profit-seeking corporations. Their “deliberate indifference,” in the words of federal judges in California and Massachusetts, has been proven time and time again. While the NWIPC’s population has dwindled, hundreds continue to be exposed to senseless hazards and suffering.

Immigration detention has never been necessary. International human rights law holds it to be a disproportionate approach, a measure of last resort, because far less restrictive measures are available to ensure attendance at court hearings. Of course, shuttering more than 200 detention centers in the U.S. would also save billions in taxpayer dollars.

This situation comprised a blatant violation of human rights before COVID-19, and it is all the more dire now. It’s time to approve HB 1090 and to close the NWIPC forever.