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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Alexandra Wilkes: Ban on contractors at immigration processing facilities based on politically-motivated misinformation

By Alexandra Wilkes Day 1 Alliance

Last month, Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill banning government contractors from operating federal immigration processing facilities in Washington.

It was the culmination of long-running attempts by “Abolish ICE” activists to close the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma. More broadly, it’s the result of a yearslong misinformation campaign with serious negative implications for the very migrants these activists claim to speak for.

Indeed, nearly everything activists say about the Tacoma facility and the longtime government contractors working in the U.S. immigration system is wrong or misleading.

First, the fundamental issue raised by critics of the Tacoma facility and its operator has to do with opposing federal immigration law and detention policy – which, in reality, government contractors have zero role in deciding. Contractors don’t write or shape immigration law, don’t make arrests, don’t decide who should and shouldn’t be detained, and have no say in the adjudication of cases by U.S. immigration courts. Every element of that is the job and responsibility of the federal government, its law enforcement agencies, and the U.S. Congress – not contractors – as it should be.

Second, it’s important to understand that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contractors are subject to high levels of oversight and accountability for their operations. Our members are required to meet the national Performance-Based Detention Standards set by the Department of Homeland Security, which were developed during the Obama-Biden Administration. Federal employees work on-site at these facilities every day to ensure compliance. They are also accredited by a number of independent organizations such as the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and are subject to regular audits and inspections.

Third, modern contractor-operated immigration processing facilities are outfitted specifically to care for individuals going through the immigration review process – treating them with the dignity and respect they deserve. Contractors’ modern processing centers provide in-house health care services, access to the US legal system – including lawyers and online courtrooms – as well as immigrant-rights advocates, religious services, recreation, and more.

It’s also vital to understand that the main alternative to contractor-operated processing facilities is to house migrants in local jails, where they would be placed alongside dangerous criminals, likely in overcrowded conditions and with less access to the critical services they receive in current contractor facilities.

Indeed, if contractors were barred from operating ICE processing facilities tomorrow – which appears to be the position of this bill’s supporters – hundreds of thousands of immigrants would be negatively impacted and moved to facilities that are not designed to house them, with no health care or other key services, and potentially in another state, further from family and friends.

In the past year, we have witnessed how the willful spread of lies and misinformation about the Tacoma facility and government contractors can have dangerous real-life consequences for our members’ employees and the individuals in their care here in Washington.

Last July, an armed man approached the Tacoma facility and threw what authorities described as “incendiary devices” at the facility, and attempted to set a commercial-size propane gas tank on fire. Tacoma Police Department responded, and the man died at the scene after shots were fired.

Federal law enforcement said in a statement that “this could have resulted in the mass murder of staff and detainees housed at the facility had he been successful at setting the tank ablaze. … These are the kinds of incidents that keep you up at night.”

A year earlier, in 2018, the man was arrested at an anti-ICE protest at the Tacoma facility for lunging at a police officer. A friend of the man’s told the press she believes he went to the facility last year intending to die for this cause.

These are the facts. And while we respect all who engage in a thoughtful debate on this issue, it must be one based on the facts and reality, not politically motivated misinformation.

Alexandra Wilkes is national spokeswoman for the Day 1 Alliance, a trade association representing private sector contractors helping address corrections and detention challenges in the United States.

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