Northwest News

Q&A: Congressman Adam Smith talks immigration detention

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith said there are a couple of reasons why he’s been focused on the issue of immigration detention recently.

First, the Democrat said, is that the population of his district is diverse and includes many immigrants. Washington’s 9th Congressional District runs from the Port of Tacoma as far north as Sammamish.

The second reason immigration detention has been on his radar, Smith said, is that the Northwest Detention Center on the Tacoma Tideflats is in his territory.

He toured the center last year after detainees held hunger strikes to protest conditions there, and has worked with grass-roots groups on legislation to improve conditions in detention facilities, he said. Most recently, he reintroduced that bill May 14, called the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act.

Smith spoke recently with The News Tribune about the bill and other detention-center news.

Q: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement just extended a temporary contract with The GEO Group to run the detention center in Tacoma through June 30, as negotiations for a new agreement are ongoing. Do you have any idea what’s prolonging the negotiations?

A: I don’t know exactly. I think the administration and I would guess the Obama administration is interested in detaining fewer people. And this is why privately run detention facilities or prisons are so wrong. If they’re detaining fewer people, then I’m sure GEO is concerned about whether or not they’re going to make enough money. And there’s probably also discussions about the conditions, and a whole bunch of other things that have been brought to light recently that make that negotiation more difficult.

Q: Do you support alternatives to detention?

A: I mean absolutely. There are plenty of alternatives to detention. You determine that these people have close connections to the community: families, jobs, friends, a home. Allowing them to go home and wait for their date is a perfectly acceptable way to do this. I think that’s one of the best options. There’s also home-monitoring options as well. But like I said, the bulk of these people are not flight risks. They want to figure out a way to stay here. They can’t afford to just pack up and leave where they’re at. I think allowing more of them to stay with their families in their communities under some sort of probation or monitoring system would be a better way of doing it and a fairer, more humane, and also cheaper way of doing it.

Q: What does your bill do?

A: The big thing my bill does is it allows advocates for the immigrant community to have a say in the conditions within the detention facilities, first of all. And second, it really emphasizes alternatives to detention. It urges the administration to pursue those as a first option.

Q: The bill address oversight of the facilities, right?

A: Yes, to allow immigrant rights groups to have a say in what that oversight is, and what it looks like.

Q: What’s the status of the bill?

A: Not going to kid you, the Republican Congress is not exactly friendly to this. But we’ve got to keep bringing awareness to the issue to hopefully get improvements. So right now, it’s been introduced, and just like that sad little bill on the TV show, it’s sitting in committee, waiting to get a fair hearing.

Q: Anything else you’d like people to know about your work on these issues?

A: All of these issues that we’re talking about come back to the need for comprehensive immigration reform, to give the undocumented population a path to citizenship.