Sequester Frees Immigrants From Tacoma Detention Center

Feb 27, 2013

Holding cell at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Holding cell at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Credit Flickr/Common Language Project

Sequestration has apparently led to a “get out of jail free” card for some detainees at an immigration lockup in Tacoma.

With budget cuts looming, the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday that it’s shifting some detainees around the country to supervised release. It appears that includes some detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, which is the area’s main holding facility for immigrants facing deportation.

Immigration officials in Seattle declined to comment about how people there have been released in recent days. But an attorney who works with detainees at the NWDC says she’s heard an estimate.

“Some of the guards just kind of ball-parked that maybe 50 people or so were being released but we don’t know how accurate that is,” said Betsy Tao, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Tacoma. She's also talked with other attorneys whose clients were surprised they got to leave detention. “This is definitely an unusual thing,” Tao said.

Tao and her colleagues spent Tuesday at NWDC talking with detainees who also reported people are getting released. They asked her why they aren’t the ones selected but Tao said the criteria is unclear.

Immigrant advocates around the country started reporting similar releases this weekend. Hundreds of low-risk detainees were reportedly let go from some detention centers.

Immigration officials confirmed some of the information Tuesday. “Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention,” said Andrew Muñoz, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Seattle.

 The released immigrants will still need to routinely check in with federal authorities and they will still face deportation proceedings.  

“Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety,” Muñoz said.

According to the National Immigration Forum, it costs the government about $164 a day to keep an illegal immigrant facing deportation jailed. In a report on immigration detention costs last year, the advocacy group said costs for supervised release can range from about 30 cents to $14 a day.

The releases are one of the first visible signs of how impending budget cuts will affect the Department of Homeland Security.

Tao calls the releases welcome news since people have much greater access to legal resources once they’re no longer behind bars.

This report includes information from the Associated Press.