On September 9, InvestigateWest, an independent investigative journalism nonprofit, published an extensive five-part report on the current state of US immigration policy in the Northwest through the life of immigrant Oscar Campos Estrada, his attempts at citizenship, and the questionable origins of Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center where he was held. Throughout the process, InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith partnered with the Tacoma, Washington-based News Tribune‘s reporter Lewis Kamb and photographer Dean Koepfler to interview more than 75 people, scour through more than 20,000 pages of public records and emails, and keep pressure on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau and The GEO Group — who currently owns the detention center — for access to detainees. The result is a moving and often infuriating look into the complicated US legal treatment of undocumented immigrants.
According to the investigation, Estrada, who has been living in the United States for nearly 22 years, enlisted a smuggler to sneak him, his then-girlfriend, and his family across the Mexican border in February 1991. They quickly moved up north and tried to establish a life for themselves. With help from his father, he was able to start picking flowers for $4.50 an hour a mere two days after his arrival. From there, Estrada accepted jobs all over Pierce County, WA, often taking the low-paying under-the-table wage of a manual laborer, dishwashing and picking crops to avoid detection. When he had enough money, he purchased an illegal Social Security Card and had taxes taken out of his paychecks. He was inching toward the life he wanted, but the legal ramifications of being an undocumented immigrant would soon prove challenging.
The investigation traces Estrada’s life as he applies for a green card, marries and separates from his wife, and is pulled over in 2011 for running a stop sign. He was driving on a suspended license. The officer put him in Pierce County Jail, where he was put on immigration hold and then sent to Northwest Detention Center. He has since posted bond and was allowed to return to work, but he is in legal limbo.
The series weaves Estrada’s story with that of the detention center itself, which has been problematic from its onset. A federal review found that its location at Tacoma’s J Street had “undefined levels of hazardous waste contamination that exceed established regulatory levels for soil and groundwater” from its proximity to the “Tacoma Tar Pits,” where a coal harvesting plant released toxic sludge into the soil for three decades prior. It’s also on a floodplain directly in the path volcanic mudslides would flow if Mount Rainier ever erupted. As a result, the federal review originally recommended a safer location near the Port of Tacoma. Because local bigwigs wanted this area for port expansion, the then-immigration agency the INS bowed to political pressure, and the center was built at the J Street location. Since then, it has become the fourth largest detention center in the country, going from 500 original detainees to more than 1,500 by 2009.
And thanks to a contract between the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) and The GEO Group, ICE is mandated to fill or pay for at least 1,181 of those beds at $100.65 per day. For every detainee above that amount, ICE further agreed to pay $62.52 per day. Altogether, this increased the minimum monthly revenue of the contract from $1.5 million to $3.5 million. This means that ICE must ensure that at least 1,181 people are occupying beds at the Northwest Detention Center at any given time in order to be cost-effective. It also means that the Northwest County Detention Center is actively encouraged to hold any additional occupants over longer stretches of time. Not only, then, are these legal complications regularly occurring, but they’re being rewarded in the name of huge profits.
Complaints about the private prison system or even the treatment of immigrants aren’t new. In an Investigative Fund story from April that was published in the Nation about Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center, reporters Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville uncovered the negative effects of harsh immigration policies on the local Latino population. Since 2010, state officials and the prison company had been lobbying ICE to send detainees their way, sweetening the deal by charging $45 daily per detainee, half the price of facilities in northern states. Despite concerns that the Irwin facility was too far away from legal services and ICE oversight, the agency contracted with the struggling facility at the expense of undocumented detainees, who reported a lack of clothing, soiled bedding, and insufficient food. “I just feel humiliated,” Florent Firmin Kalonji Kalala, a 31-year-old native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who had been at Irwin since September, told the reporters. “Thats the feeling I have everyday.” County leaders once saw ICE’s business as their “salvation,” but detainees didn’t come fast enough. The prison is now bankrupt and the county deep in debt — symbols of how politics have come to rule detention policy, often at the expense of rural America.
Rappleye and Riordan Seville also wrote about another troubled immigrant detention facility for NBC News in a two-part series. The first story focused on Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, which immigrant advocates have long called “one of the worst facilities in ICE’s sprawling detention system.” Moldovan immigrant Ivan Stobert, in the country legally, found himself at Etowah for almost a year because he mistakenly checked the wrong box while applying for his motorcycle driving license. In the meantime, he lost his house to foreclosure, his marriage collapsed, and his cleaning business went down the drain. In the second part, published August 22, the pair tracked ICE’s efforts to shut down the scandal-ridden jail efforts that were stymied by local politics. “The story of the Etowah County jail demonstrates how politicians can shape not just policy, but everyday operational decisions at ICE, an agency responsible for nearly 34,000 detainees on any given day,” the writers conclude.
Also check out this Al Jazeera Fault Lines episode which takes viewers to Texas and Florida and discovers that immigrant detention is a profitable business. The US government detains more than 33,000 non-citizens at the cost of $5.5 million a day — powerful motivation to spend millions in lobbying costs to keep the immigrant detention dollars flowing.