It goes without saying that there is some trepidation as schools come back to in-person session in the next few weeks. There’s an interesting tension that occurs as we meet present conditions. It’s clear that the pandemic is not going away any time soon, and thus we can’t collectively presume that we can simply return to life as it was before COVID-19. Sadly, this does not stop the immigrant carceral apparatus from reverting to its pre-2020 modus operandi.
The Northwest ICE Processing Center (formerly the Northwest Detention Center) in Tacoma is one recent epicenter as an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has infected nearly 240 people, as migrant transfers to the facility have increased the site’s census since early June. During the early half of this year, the census at the NWIPC was estimated at 200 people, per a Seattle Times report from June 24. The site held up to an estimated 1,575 people during the period preceding the initiation of the pandemic.
This is perhaps a demoralizing sign that the pandemic was ironically, a way to deter ICE enforcement under the previous administration. As services reopen, sadly, so does the same trajectory with the continued “criminalization” of migration. Of the 1,000 migrants transferred to Washington State since early June, hundreds have been released and there is an estimated 530 still held at the facility according to a Seattle Times report from Aug. 21.
Even with fewer numbers, it is still disconcerting that the NWIPC is an active COVID-19 hot spot. This illustrates the larger reason as to why both the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington are suing the federal government. According to the South Seattle Emerald, one migrant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, notes that the ability to social distance is truncated as people are placed in four-person pod cells. Likewise, there isn’t consistent use of masks among center staff, nor is there consistent following of necessary cleaning protocols. In addition, prior to transferring migrants from facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border, the federal government has lapsed in testing asymptomatic cases and has failed to provide isolation upon transfer to Tacoma.
The detention center continues to operate with little regard to the safety and dignity of the people in their facilities. This includes failure to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. It is part of a long history of abuse in which basic standards are ignored and people are commodified, as the GEO Group, the operator of the detention center, continues profiting from human misery.
As we envision and aspire toward a different reality, we must challenge the status quo. A return to a “normalcy” that exploits our communities is a “normal” not worth returning to.
Oscar Rosales grew up in the Yakima Valley and works and resides in Seattle.
Read more of the Aug. 25-31, 2021 issue.