Opening their hearts to the strangers locked up in our backyard

Guards book a new detainee into the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. The facility is run by the Geo Group, a private corrections corporation, on contract from the Department of Homeland Security

The first time I went to the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center was in 2007. I remember heavy doors buzzing open to reveal a fluorescent-lit visitation room where tired faces lined up behind thick Plexiglas.

Put simply, it’s not a pleasant place to visit. I was there for work, reporting a story about immigrants being held in the facility.

But some people go there voluntarily.

“We ask people to visit for one hour, two times a month,” says Pat Gunn who helped start up a program to visit those housed in the detention center last year through an a organization called The Northwest Detention Center Roundtable, “It’s really to acknowledge that you are a human being, that you exist and that there is someone on the outside that cares about you.”

The Northwest Detention Center (also known as the NWDC) is a low-slung building surrounded by long spirals of razor wire set in the Tideflats below downtown Tacoma. It opened ten years ago and has since grown to a capacity of 1,575 beds while also spurring a network of community groups and nonprofits that provide services to detainees that range from book drives to legal support and monthly vigils.

The people who make up the facility’s rotating population are undocumented immigrants who were caught by authorities, or legal immigrants who have committed certain crimes that mean they may now be deported. Some are also asylum seekers — people seeking refuge from persecution and violence in their home countries.

The visiting area at NWDC. A network of volunteers organize visits for detainees from distant countries. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
The visiting area at NWDC. A network of volunteers organize visits for detainees from distant countries. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

However they got there, “they really are alone,” says Gunn, who currently works with twenty-six volunteers who regularly visit detainees from around the world including Ghana, the Marshall Islands and Bangladesh.

She says visits can focus on detainees’ “hopes and dreams,” English lessons or general chitchat — anything that helps address what she calls “the isolation of detention.”

But the need for assistance extends beyond the walls of the NWDC, say activists. Detainees who win their cases often find themselves released with no resources and far from home (the facility holds people arrested as far away as Alaska). Others may be released from detention with their cases still pending but must stay in the Tacoma area while awaiting a final ruling.

“I think we were the first family [that] housed someone officially,” says Susan, who got started by providing temporary housing for a woman from Honduras who eventually won her asylum case, but had nowhere to live while awaiting the verdict.

That was three years ago. Since then she and her family (she is married with a teenage daughter) have housed others from Honduras, as well as Guatemala and Ghana. At one point she had five asylum seekers in her home at once.

Susan says she prefers not to share her last name for fear it might compromise her ability to provide what she calls “sanctuary” for the asylum seekers she and her family help board.

“There is a need for more resources,” she says, adding that some released from the Northwest Detention Center end up in local homeless shelters, which can be problematic for people with language barriers or who have recently experienced trauma.

“Once detainees are released, it is then their responsibility to go out into the community and provide for themselves,” says Andrew Muñoz, Public Affairs Officer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) via email, though he adds that ICE helps provide released detainees with contact info for organizations that offer “transition assistance.”

The NWDC, near downtown Tacoma, was expanded in 2010 to house up to 1,575 detainees. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
The NWDC, near downtown Tacoma, was expanded in 2010 to house up to 1,575 detainees. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Despite her frustration with what she calls a “patch work” system, Susan is quick to share stories of fishing trips and holidays made more meaningful by her international guests, and jokes easily about keeping “extra toothbrushes and shampoo on hand.”

But her commitment is deeper than cultural exchange. She and her husband met while working on human rights issues in Central America and Susan says her time traveling — and often at the mercy of strangers — makes her want to help those alone and far from home.

“If any of us were in a similar situation,” she says, “We would hope that someone would reach out to us.”

And when she puts it that way, it’s hard not agree.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at