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Originally published Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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More immigrants in detention: Tacoma center getting influx

Homeland Security no longer lets illegal immigrants go free until a court date if space is tight in local facilities. They're shuffled to wherever there are beds for them.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Unbeknownst to her family, friends and attorney, Maria Del Toro Chacon was suddenly moved this week from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where she'd been held for the past year.

Chacon — a Mexican national and mother of two — and 14 other women were not told where they were going, weren't allowed to take personal possessions and weren't permitted to make any telephone calls.

In the dark on Sunday night, she said, they were driven south in two vans that left the highway somewhere beyond Olympia, eventually coming to idle in an unlit, isolated area. In the back of the van, the panicked women cried and prayed — certain they were being taken somewhere to be shot.

They were transferred from the vans to a bus and taken to Columbia County jail in St. Helens, Ore., where they remained for four days before being returned to the detention center in Tacoma.

Movements like these, from and between immigration detention centers nationwide, have occurred with increasing frequency since this summer, when the Department of Homeland Security stepped up efforts to detain and deport illegal immigrants.

Chacon and the others were relocated, immigration officials said, to free up bed space for a new group of detainees expected in from another state. The move was also intended to relieve overcrowding that resulted after a flight to remove some detainees was canceled.

Under mounting pressure from Congress and the public to better enforce immigration laws and expel illegal immigrants, Homeland Security is moving to detain every illegal immigrant taken into custody by guaranteeing a bed somewhere in the country — anywhere in the country, no matter how far away.

It replaces a practice known as catch and release, in which immigrants picked up in areas with chronic bed shortages were released on the promise they would show up for court later.

Most, immigration officials said, never did.

As part of their new focus, enforcement officers are conducting more raids at work sites and scouring jails and prisons looking for immigrants — those here illegally and those holding green cards — who are nearing the end of their criminal sentences and are subject to deportation.

The end goal: to expel from the country every illegal immigrant without a legitimate claim to be here. Within a year, officials expect to have rattled many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, creating a disincentive for others to attempt illegal crossings.

Homeland Security was on track to remove 180,000 people from the country during the fiscal year that ended Friday, up 7 percent from the previous year.

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"We're detaining them with full expectation of removing them and, depending on where they came from, that process can be very quick," said Gary Mead, assistant director for detention and removal operations with the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. Homeland Security wants to send a clear message, he said: "If you come to this country illegally, we'll apprehend you, detain you and remove you."

Under Operation Reservation Guaranteed, as it is being called, detainees are flown to wherever in the country a bed is available. As part of the operation, Homeland Security has relocated about 700 detainees a week across the country, Mead said.

In recent weeks, they've come from places like New York, Puerto Rico and Guam to the Northwest Detention Center, which opened in the Tacoma Tideflats in spring 2004.

The self-contained complex boasts a law library, recreational facilities, two courtrooms and a fully equipped clinic capable of rapid detection and treatment for tuberculosis.

"Headquarters is looking to see where there are open beds," said Neil Clark, Seattle-based field director for detention and removal operations of Homeland Security. "They'd call and ask: Can you guys handle this many? We're using the efficiencies of the system."

When the operation began in July, there were about 18,000 immigrants in detention nationwide, he said. The current population is around 25,500.

The stepped-up enforcement has led to a crunch on beds throughout the system, and the push is on to add more space nationwide. The Bush administration's 2007 budget calls for a 25 percent increase in detention beds.

In the Pacific Northwest, where the number of beds has grown from 150 in 2004 to the current 800, officials expect to add another 200 by the start of the year. Clark said admissions at the detention center are about 1,000 people ahead of last year.

Angry advocates

This aggressive approach has angered many immigrant advocates, who call it inhumane and politically expedient in an election year. Attorneys for immigrants grumble that people's rights are being compromised.

More than two years after the Northwest's 147,000-square-foot detention center opened, they point out, the Justice Department has yet to assign a judge to either of the two courts there, a shortcoming government officials call a "resource issue."

Hearings in the courts are conducted by visiting judges, while routine procedures, such as first appearances, are done through videoconferencing, common throughout the detention system.

"One of the most unfortunate side effects of the increase in detention is this huge backlog of cases," said Nancy Acevedo, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. The agency conducts workshops at the detention center to help explain immigrants' rights to them.

Detainees are entitled to a hearing before a judge within 10 days, she said, but "at this point they're getting pushed out to three to five weeks."

At least 80 percent of people detained don't have legal counsel, she said, mostly because they can't afford it. "There are so many of them and so few of us," she said.

Some people end up waiting so long they simply give up — even those with a legitimate immigration claim, said Robert Gibbs, a Seattle immigration attorney.

"If Homeland Security plans to realistically keep people detained, they are not set up in terms of having judges and courtrooms in proximity to the jails to do that," Gibbs said. "Which makes my point: They don't expect any of these people to ask for hearings."

Outside the detention center on Friday, Community to Community Development, a Whatcom County advocacy group, rallied to draw attention to the hardships such arrests are creating for immigrant families throughout the state.

In raids across the state, from Bellingham to Yakima, workers have been picked up at job sites, including those that traditionally employ women, such as hotels and nursing homes. Many of the workers' families don't learn of their fate until the workers eventually call from Mexico.

"We're seeing a disproportionate number of women being taken," said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of the group. "It's raising the level of paranoia in our communities."

"Back to the basics"

Operation Reservation Guaranteed was launched this summer along the southern border and later implemented nationwide with the goal of detaining and expelling virtually every illegal and criminal fugitive immigrant that enforcement officials apprehend.

"We're trying to get away from letting people walk out the door without addresses," Clark said. "With the immigration situation the way it is in this country, as many beds as we have, we can fill them. We're getting back to the basics — putting stability back into immigration enforcement."

Homeland Security contracts with The GEO Group, a national detention-management company, to run the Northwest Detention Center and several others nationwide.

These facilities were never intended to be punitive. Often they are the last stop for illegal immigrants with a one-way pass back to their home countries. Detainees are held while they await an initial hearing before an immigration judge, or while their case is on appeal. In other cases, they are simply waiting on paperwork for deportation.

There is constant churn in these centers. Two flights a week remove about 200 detainees from the Northwest Detention Center, most destined for Mexico or Central America.

Their beds don't stay vacant long.

The average stay, Clark said, is 21 days. "There are many who stay much longer," he said.

Chacon, who is waiting out an asylum appeal, will mark one year in detention next month.

She had been in the country 14 years when she was picked up last year at her job at a health-care facility in Burien. Her friends arranged for her teenage daughter to stay with other friends in Arizona. Her son attends college at Gonzaga University.

"The waiting is tough. I'm ready to give up," she said. "That's the one thing that keeps me going are my kids."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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