By Nina Shapiro, Seattle Times
The GEO Group, a huge private prison corporation, is suing the state, claiming a new law mandating the closure of the immigrant detention center it runs in Tacoma would unconstitutionally subvert federal authority.
Not only does the law enacted by the Legislature in March interfere with a contract signed between GEO and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it also attempts to undermine federal enforcement efforts, argues the company’s complaint filed last month in U.S. District Court of Western Washington.
“This transparent attempt by the state to shut down the federal government’s detention efforts within Washington’s borders is a direct assault on the supremacy of federal law, and it cannot stand.”
Seeking a preliminary injunction, GEO also says the state law would force the detention center to close in September — much earlier than many people assumed.
The fight over the 1,575-bed Northwest ICE Processing Center follows years of criticism by activists and human-rights advocates claiming immigrants held there are given inadequate food and medical care, and spend far longer on average in solitary confinement than at similar institutions.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is also suing GEO for allegedly violating minimum-wage laws by paying detainees $1 a day to work at the facility.
That federal suit over wages is set to begin trial June 1, Ferguson wrote as he filed notice of a related case in this newest lawsuit. GEO countered the suits are entirely separate.
The company’s lawyers did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Ferguson, in a statement, said he supports the new law and will defend it vigorously. “GEO’s lawsuit is part of its scorched-earth effort to avoid any accountability from the state of Washington, even though GEO chose to do business here.”
The law, which bans most types of private detention facilities but in practice affects just the Tacoma facility, allows current contracts to run their course. What this means, however, is a little complicated.
In 2015, ICE signed a contract with GEO to run the Tacoma facility. It had numerous options for extending, the last of which would end in March 2026. In January, after lawmakers introduced the private detention bill, the feds and GEO modified the contract, removing the options and making it simply run through September 2025.
The company says it believes the state law, which only recognizes contracts in effect before January 1, 2021, would invalidate its latest modification.
“It’s an interesting gamble,” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, who like many, assumed the law would force the detention center to close in 2025. He guessed GEO was taking a different position to make a stronger case for an injunction.
“But by doing that, they almost make themselves more vulnerable to losing their business starting in September,” Adams said.
He speculated a judge might be tempted to wait for a similar California case to play out in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments are to be held next month in that case, involving challenges by GEO and the federal government to a California law banning private detention facilities.
U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino mostly ruled against GEO and the feds in October, holding that the California law did not override federal authority by banning certain contracts. “To meet their burden, plaintiffs must demonstrate that federal contractors operating detention facilities are ‘so closely connected to the government that the two cannot realistically be viewed as separate entities.’ ” They did not meet that burden, Sammartino wrote.
The Trump administration initially filed the federal challenge to the California law. Despite radically different immigration policies, the Biden administration is continuing to pursue an appeal. “This case is not about the wisdom of the federal government’s decisions, but about preserving its discretion to make decisions,” it said in a brief.
As of yet, the federal government has not filed suit over the Washington law.
GEO has invested $101 million in the Tacoma facility and stands to lose $264 million in revenue if the law is upheld, the company said in legal papers.
It focuses its arguments, however, on other matters. There is a dire shortage of space to house immigrant detainees that will be made worse by the closing of the Tacoma site, GEO said, citing 2019 figures showing a dramatic increase in the number of ICE apprehensions.
More recently, COVID-19 has prompted ICE to scale back its enforcement efforts. The Northwest detention center held only about 200 people as of mid-March.
GEO also said the facility’s closure would force the government to send detainees it arrests in Washington, far away from their families, friends, and attorneys. The nearest facility is 659 miles away, in California.
Adams called GEO’s expressed concern disingenuous but concedes, “It’s a difficult issue.”
“There are people who will suffer more … I think that’s counterbalanced by the fact that there will be less people who are detained overall,” he said, adding he believed the cost of transporting people will act as a deterrent.