TACOMA, Wash. -- After years of complaints and lawsuits over its treatment of immigrant detainees, the federal government invited reporters this week to take an "inside look" at its detention center in Tacoma, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center.
Nathalie Asher, who arrived in August to head enforcement and removal operations throughout the Northwest for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said she initiated the first-of-its-kind tour to dispel myths and "bad information" that she said had created a hostile environment for officers at the facility. Some had even received threatening phone calls at home, she said.
And in July, police killed a onetime protester who returned to the detention center and threw incendiary devices -- an incident Asher said could have been catastrophic.
"Certainly, we are not a popular entity in the area," she said, returning to the subject repeatedly as she led about 15 journalists through the second of two tours Tuesday.
"You will see a well-run operation," she promised as she started the tour, which showed off bright, white-walled hallways painted by detainees with murals, a medical center with an X-ray and examination rooms, and a pod where detainees sat on bunk beds or talked to each other at metal tables. At one table was Jose Robles, who after a year in sanctuary at a downtown Seattle church, turned himself in to ICE in July.
Outside the detention center, however, activist Maru Mora-Villalpando declared the tour a whitewash and said just the day before, she had heard from detainees that they had found live maggots in food. Asher said she would look into it.
The privately run detention center is owned by the GEO Group and holds up to 1,575 immigrants accused by the government of living in the U.S. illegally and now facing deportation proceedings.
It comes at a time when detention facilities are in the spotlight, especially those at the border where children are being held in conditions described by doctors, lawyers and advocates for immigrants as inhumane.
Material distributed by ICE before the tour -- including forms requiring reporters to stick to strict rules, such as not interviewing detainees -- noted that the detention center has never housed children.
Still, controversy has long surrounded the detention center. Detainees have held a series of hunger strikes to protest what they say is inadequate food and $1-a-day wages for what GEO calls a "voluntary work program." Some hunger strikers have said they were put into solitary confinement and in one case beaten -- the subject of an ongoing ACLU lawsuit against ICE and GEO. One hunger-striker died by suicide late last year.