OLYMPIA, Wash. - The Washington Legislature has approved a bill aimed at shutting down one of the country’s largest for-profit, privately run immigration jails.
Led by majority Democrats, the state Senate voted 28-21 Tuesday in favor of a measure that would ban for-profit detention centers in the state. The only facility that meets that definition is the Northwest detention center in Tacoma, a 1,575-bed immigration jail operated by the GEO Group under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The measure already passed the House with bipartisan support and now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee, who opposes for-profit detention centers. It was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self of Mukilteo, who called it a "moral injustice" to profit from detaining people.
Supporters argued that the severe drop in immigration detention during the pandemic proved it’s not necessary to keep so many immigrants locked up, and they criticized minimum-bed quotas that are written into contracts with private detention facilities.
"When you have a motive for profits, you have a motive to destroy people’s lives," Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said during Monday’s debate.
The Northwest detention center currently houses fewer than 200 detainees due to pandemic-related precautions, said Matt Adams, legal director at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
"Why were we locking up 1,500 people in Tacoma a year and a half ago? It’s because it’s a business," Adams said. "Having private facilities creates the perverse incentive to require that more people be detained, irrespective of whether they pose a flight risk or a danger to the community."
The bill would allow GEO to continue operating the jail until its contract with ICE expires in 2025.
Opponents said the bill was sure to bring litigation. GEO sued over a similar 2019 measure in California, though a federal judge there largely sided with the state.
The company has long said it provides for the safety of detainees there in accordance with federal standards, despite allegations of substandard conditions. It noted that the federal government provides health care at the facility.
In an emailed statement, the Day 1 Alliance, a trade association of GEO and other private detention companies, suggested the lawmakers were motivated by "faux outrage" as a show of opposition to former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration priorities.
The facility "has operated in Tacoma for more than 20 years under Democratic and Republican Presidential Administrations, offering the same high-quality services to the federal government throughout," it said.
The trade association also said that the bill would likely force detainees to be transferred out of state, "isolating them from family, friends and legal services."
"The government contractor that operates the facility in Tacoma plays zero role in determining or enforcing immigration policy or who should be detained at the facility," the statement said. "This bill is nothing more than political theater, at the expense of the very individuals housed at the facility whose interests elected officials claim to have in mind."
President Joe Biden has instructed the Justice Department not to renew contracts with private prisons, but that doesn’t apply to the immigration detention system under the Department of Homeland Security.
Adams conceded that banning private detention centers state-by-state in the absence of a federal ban would create near-term hardships for detainees and their families. But, he added, "There’s going to be less people overall who are locked up."
The Tacoma immigration lockup has long been a target of immigrant rights activists. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing to force GEO to pay the state minimum wage to detainees who perform janitorial and other tasks at the jail.