One island of the archipelago

Today I watched the People’s Tribunal outside the Northwest Detention Center. The testimonies were all stories about individuals currently detained there, told by people who had interviewed them this weekend, because the detainees aren’t allowed to speak for themselves. We heard painful accounts of the petty reasons people end up detained there, the barriers to their getting a fair hearing once caught up in the punitive immigration system, poor conditions in detention, and above all how the system dehumanises detainees and guards alike. I was reminded alternately of Josef K and Ivan Denisovich, two archetypes this country likes to pretend it’s above creating.

A photo of the crowd in attendance at the People's Tribunal, with red SOLIDARIDAD flags prominent

But that’s not what I want to tell you about. Hopefully you already know about the evils of the US immigration system, and the abuses at detention centers, and if you don’t then NWDC Resistance has a better backgrounder than I could write. I want to look at a question of geography: the location of the center itself, and all the ways it reminds us that the immigration system does not value our fellow prisoners.

The Northwest Detention Center is a sterile, inhospitable building between the docks and warehouses of Tacoma’s industrial waterfront. Here’s the location for context:

Location of the Northwest Detention Center

How does this site tell us about the values—or lack thereof—that put it there? First, there’s the geology: this site is squarely in the lahar hazard zone from Mount Rainier. The wrong kind of eruption would send superheated mud down the Puyallup and Carbon rivers, burying anything in its path. Nobody should be sleeping in this zone, let alone people who can’t let themselves out if they hear the sirens. ICE claims to have evacuation plans in place, but it won’t let anyone see them, and given what we’ve seen when ordinary prisons are hit by natural disasters I see no reason to trust them to have actually thought that plan through seriously and tested its adequacy.

Lahar hazard map for Pierce County
Lahar hazard zones in red and yellow; NWDC location is the red X.

Being where the lahar deposits reach the sea, the whole Tacoma docks area would have been tidal mudflats until they were filled and dredged for industry, turning them into this:

A photo of the industrial area outside the detention center

This has at least four important consequences:

  1. Everything built on fill is at particularly high risk of collapse in an earthquake, due to soil liquefaction – another reason no-one should be sleeping at this location.
  2. The nature of the fill and previous uses of the land has left it severely polluted – strike three against forcing anyone to live here, yet it turns out that the facility is here precisely because the land is a problem to use for anything else.
  3. The building out of this area represents a significant loss of a habitat type that’s particularly important because it’s so biologically productive and naturally relatively scarce around Puget Sound.
  4. Because it was such productive habitat, this would have been an important foraging and hunting area for the Puyallup people, until settlers decided to pave it over.

Speaking of the Puyallup, NWDC sits just barely outside the contemporary Puyallup Reservation’s boundaries:

Map showing the boundaries of the Puyallup Reservation and location of NWDC

This reads like nested layers of insult. Not only were the Puyallups forced off almost all the land they used to use onto a tiny remnant. Not only was at least half the land they were allowed to keep at perpetual risk of flooding, lahars, liquefaction and/or landslides. Not only did they lose the rich tidal foraging grounds inside and outside their reservation to development. Now the people who invaded and pushed them off their ancestral lands have the gall to then claim they had the right to say who gets to live here and who doesn’t, and placed one of the brutal sites of enforcing that a stone’s throw from the reservation they confined the Puyallups to.

In practical terms, there could hardly be a worse site for this facility. But as a symbol of everything it plays a part in… could it be better?

A photo of the detention center itself

1 thought on “One island of the archipelago”

  1. This is spot on. Even if ICE tries to prevent the detainees from seeking, the very land tells us stories.

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