“Say it once, say it twice, we will not put up with ICE,” the crowd outside the NWIPC chanted, accompanied by the tune of hand whistles and bangs of taiko drumming • Photo by Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠

On February 18, one day before observing the Day of Remembrance a commemoration of the 1942 signing of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced evacuation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II camp survivors, their descendants, and allies rallied outside the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) in East Tacoma to loudly call for the facility’s immediate closure. 

“Folks on the inside can hear us if we make enough noise,” said Stan Shikuma, a member of direct action project Tsuru for Solidarity and Seattle’s JACL chapter, to the group. “Sometimes a sound, just a simple sound, is the thing that can bring you hope.” 

Demonstrators arrived at NWIPC in the afternoon following the first part of the day’s program at the Puyallup fairgrounds, the site where, in 1942, a number of Japanese Americans were held temporarily before their transfer to permanent “relocation centers.” Tsuru for Solidarity, in union with immigrant rights group La Resistencia, organized the action as a part of a weeklong series to protest the U.S. government’s historical and current practice of immigrant detention. 

“Say it once, say it twice, we will not put up with ICE,” the crowd chanted, accompanied by the tune of hand whistles and bangs of taiko drumming. Protestors attached paper plates decorated with Linda Ando’s hand drawn art and origami cranes to the NWIPC’s chain link fence. 

The week of action began at a press conference outside the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building on February 15 to demand that Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), finally shut down the NWIPC, formerly called the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC). 

The week of action began at a press conference at the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building • Courtesy of La Resistencia
Demonstrators kick off the ‘Day of Remembrance, Week of Action’ at the the Federal Building in Seattle on February 15, calling for the permanent shut down of the NWIPC • Courtesy of La Resistencia

The for-profit facility is privately owned and operated by GEO Group, Inc. on behalf of ICE, primarily detaining asylum seekers or those awaiting deportation proceedings. It can hold up to 1,575 individuals, with up to 200 transferred in from the U.S.-Mexico border each month.

A report detailing the results of an unannounced DHS inspection at the center last year indicated that the NWIPC “did not always practice sound food storage practices,” among other findings. A partial 40-minute video recently obtained by the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights shows NWIPC guards using tear gas to subdue detainee protests over confiscated razor blades.

“The [NWIPC] is still operating. There are weekly deportation flights coming in and out of Boeing Field, and families are still being separated,” said Barbara Yasui, niece of the late activist Minoru Yasui, who was arrested in 1942 for protesting a discriminatory wartime curfew in Portland, Oregon, and who went on to challenge the legality of WWII Japanese American incarceration all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I’ve marched in demonstrations, held signs, and chanted, but I’ve never engaged in an act of civil disobedience,” said Yasui. “I figure after 72 years, you’re never too old to try something new.” 

Since 2014, the center’s detainees have launched frequent hunger strikes, reporting inadequate healthcare, hazardous sanitation, and the use of intimidation and other punitive tactics like solitary confinement. Last year, they staged seven hunger strikes, lasting as long as 53 days. 

Three have taken place in 2024 so far. 

“The food is the worst. The conditions are just like what you and your families experienced. There is no difference,” said former NWIPC detainee Ruben Perez at the Puyallup fairgrounds, after hearing stories of what Japanese Americans experienced 82 years ago. “Even though I’ve been here giving my life for 30 years… the lawyers, the judges, the guards, they don’t care.”

Ruben Perez speaks at the Puyallup fairgrounds about his 17-month detention at the NWIPC, during which, he experienced internal bleeding and was diagnosed with cirrhosis • Photo by Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠
Signs made at the Puyallup fairgrounds before heading to the NWIPIC • Photo by Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠

Perez, whose family started a GoFundMe to pay for medical bills that arose while he was detained at NWIPC for 17 months, described his experience inside the detention center. Only when he passed out after suffering from internal bleeding for two weeks, did the facility’s guards authorize a medical release. They took him to a hospital with his hands and feet chained “as if [he] was a criminal, an assassin, or something worse.” He was diagnosed with cirrhosis. 

“My only crime was that I didn’t have a legal paper to be here,” said Perez. “I’m here to speak for those who don’t have a voice right now, all those who are deported with terminal illnesses.”

La Resistencia, which was created to support the first NWIPC hunger strike, are key allies to those on the inside. They endorsed House Bill (HB) 1470, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee last May. The bill created stronger safety and health protections in private prisons across Washington state and introduced a range of new standards for its Department of Health that guaranteed oversight and accountability through regular facility inspections to ensure compliance.

“A lot of people think that when we have good things it’s because politicians decided to do it. No, it doesn’t work that way,” said La Resistencia organizer Maru Mora Villalpando during the action outside the NWIPC. “We have to fight for justice. Justice doesn’t come by itself.” 

GEO Group, Inc., for its part, has been embroiled in legal battles for the past few years. 

The Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled in December 2023 that GEO Group, Inc. is not exempt from Washington state’s minimum wage, which increased to $16.28 in 2024 — the highest of any state. The decision came after the company was previously scrutinized for labor exploitation, when it was discovered that NWIPC detainees were paid $1 a day to clean, do laundry, wash dishes, and staff a barber shop and library inside the facility.

A 2021 decision ordered that the company pay nearly $6 million in back wages and unlawful gains, which GEO Group, Inc. appealed. More recently, both Washington state’s Department of Health and Department of Labor and Industries filed lawsuits against GEO Group, Inc., after inspectors were denied access to inspect the facility under HB 1470 in the past few months.

Protestors attached plates decorated with original art to the NWIPC fence • Photo by Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠
Protestors outside the NWIPC on February 18 • Photo by Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠

“Now we have Washington state fighting GEO, fighting lawsuits left and right. It’s awesome,” said Mora Villalpondo. “GEO says they shouldn’t pay minimum wage because the people here are detained, they’re not workers. The Washington Supreme Court said, ‘No, in our state, the law says anybody that works, regardless of papers or not, should be paid the minimum wage.’”

In the middle of Mora Villalpondo speaking, protestors briefly connected with detainees inside the NWIPC via video chat, but were cut off quickly, reporting to the crowd outside that prison guards had discovered who they were talking to and were threatening to “take away” their tablet. 

Sina Sam, a member of the Khmer Advocacy and Advancement Group (KhAAG), spoke next, highlighting the interconnectedness and overlap between Southeast Asians and the broader Japanese American and Asian Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander American communities. 

Ethnic groups of Southeast Asia — Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam — are among the largest resettled refugee and immigrant groups in the U.S., said Sam, and are currently experiencing thousands of deportation orders. She invited protestors to tie ‘strings of solidarity’ around their neighbors’ wrist, an act used by Laotian detainees on the inside, in a gesture of hope.

“Conflict is what brought us to this country in the first place and we do not want to see this happen to others,” said Sam, a refugee herself whose parents survived the Cambodian genocide. “I just want to thank those who have come before us because as the newer arrivals of Asian American organizers, our communities are greatly affected by state sanctioned violence.”

On February 20, the week of action concluded at King County International Airport, where organizers presented a letter addressed to Tony Lefebvre, the CEO of Signature Aviation, a multinational company that services deportation flights out of Boeing Field. The letter urges Signature Aviation to cut its ties with airlines like GlobalX, which ICE charters for its flights. They also requested that Lefebvre meet with individuals who have been held in ICE custody. 

“We’re also calling on the King County Council,” said Mora Villalpondo. “You know, we have progressives. Where are they? Anybody see them? Nowhere to be seen. Same with Cantwell and Murray. Where are they? Has anyone heard from them? Nothing.”

On February 20, the week of action concluded at King County International Airport, where organizers presented a letter addressed to Tony Lefebvre, the CEO of Signature Aviation • Photo by Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠
Hand drawn art by Lisa Ando • Photo by Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠
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