Population Health

October 7, 2021

Northwest Detention Center study examines pandemic’s effect on local immigrant population

Image of a detention facilityThe ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted virtually every aspect of society, notably the United States immigration system.

The United States has the largest immigrant detention infrastructure in the world. Immigrant rights advocates have raised concerns over the management of American detention centers, with concerns regarding human rights conditions experienced by immigrants who encounter such centers.

While the pandemic led to a suspension of many immigration court proceedings and the closure of travel borders, immigrants and their families have been disproportionately impacted by the ongoing health crisis.

Angelina Godoy, Helen H. Jackson Chair in Human Rights at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, sought to investigate how the ongoing pandemic has impacted or exacerbated human rights conditions at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington.

In addition to Godoy’s background in human rights and social justice, she serves as Director of the UW Center for Human Rights (UWCHR).

“The UW Center for Human Rights was created with the unique mission of conducting research in support of real-world efforts to achieve social justice through partnerships with those on the front lines of human rights struggles,” Godoy said. “One of the key areas in which we’ve worked since our founding has been immigrant rights here in Washington State.”

Immigrants become detained at detention centers like the NWDC on the basis of suspected violations of the United States’ immigration policies.

“This, in and of itself, presents equity issues … and human rights challenges,” Godoy said. “In addition, immigration enforcement often operates through partnerships with law enforcement institutions which have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. The functioning of these institutions presents equity concerns, which only become more deeply concerning when you look at the ill effects they have on the health of those who pass through their doors.”

To perform a case study of the NWDC, Godoy partnered with detained immigrants and local organizations advocating on their behalf to analyze the human rights conditions and draw attention to injustices experienced by detained immigrants.

“The reason we were interested in this topic was its sheer urgency in the context of the pandemic,” Godoy said. “Prisons are places where vulnerable people are held in confined, poorly ventilated spaces, usually with limited access to medical care, good nutrition and other elements of a healthy lifestyle. When a pandemic like COVID-19 hits, they can become like tinderboxes.”

To support this case study, Godoy partnered with community-based organizations concerned about health issues faced by detained immigrant populations.

“To be effective, I believe that social justice research must be informed by a partnership with those directly affected by whatever problem it is you’re trying to address,” Godoy said. “Otherwise, you can wind up with elegant academic findings, but little real-world impact.”

Godoy collaborated with Maru Mora-Villalpando, human rights leader and founder of La Resistencia, a local grassroots organization that seeks to end immigration detention and deportations.

“[Mora-Villalpando] has conducted visionary work as a leader of La Resistencia,” Godoy said. “She has built La Resistencia as an organization led by detained and formerly detained people, who know how these institutions affect their communities, and whose voices are powerful when demanding change. Our work was informed by the voice of detained immigrants at every stage, for they’re the ones best able to tell us how conditions at the NWDC affect them.”

The NWDC is a private prison operated by the GEO Group on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Privatization of prisons has notoriously led to human rights abuses, made possible in part by reduced government involvement and oversight.

As a result, Godoy and her colleagues hypothesized that profit considerations would lead the NWDC to minimize COVID-19 precautions to cut costs, placing immigrant detainees at risk of contracting COVID-19 and being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“The UWCHR has worked in partnership with community-based organizations concerned about health issues at the NWDC for many years, producing a series of research reports on conditions at the facility in 2020,” Godoy said. “These reports documented troubling patterns in the facility’s dismissal of detained people’s complaints regarding food, sanitation and health care.”

To understand the implications of these patterns amid the pandemic, the researchers filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to gain access to the health records of detained individuals and conducted interviews with employees of relevant government agencies.

The researchers also devoted time to review the recorded testimonies of individuals detained at the NWDC that La Resistencia collected.

“We also began a fruitful new partnership with faculty and law students at the University of Washington School of Law Immigration Clinic, who reviewed the legal issues involved in efforts to regulate health and safety at the NWDC,” Godoy said.

After conducting a thorough case study, the researchers confirmed that their initial concerns regarding the health and safety of immigrants detained at the NWDC were justified.

“Above all, we found that the way in which immigrants are detained at this facility constitutes a threat to human health,” Godoy said. “The precautions put in place by the GEO Group and ICE are inadequate to ensure safety, especially during pandemic conditions.”

This case study was supported in part by the Population Health Initiative through a COVID-19 population health equity research grant.

“Support from the Population Health Initiative was terrific,” Godoy said. “It was framed in a way that enabled us to deepen our existing partnerships, and the particular funding opportunity enabled us to respond rapidly to an emergent situation.”

After concluding the case study, the researchers have since publicized their findings and had a tangible impact on local Washington State policies that impact immigrant populations.

“This research was presented to the Washington State Legislature when it considered HB 1090, the bill to shut down the Northwest Detention Center, earlier this year,” Godoy said. “The bill passed and will eventually force that facility to close. I’m pleased that our research findings were found to be relevant in such an important discussion.”

Beyond the impending closure of the NWDC, Godoy and her research team continue their efforts to rectify the health and equity implications of immigrant detention and deportation in Washington State and beyond.

“We’re very concerned, as are the partner organizations we work with, about conditions within the NWDC right now,” Godoy said. “Beyond COVID-19, there are other concerns as well, about the treatment of serious illness, including mental health conditions, the exposure to toxic chemicals and other maladies that stem from an inhumane and unnecessary detention system.”

Godoy and her collaborators continue to advocate for immigrants’ rights through their research and call attention to these salient issues.

“We published a new report, the first of its kind in the country [to] analyz[e] the implementation of our state’s ‘sanctuary’ law in 13 priority counties across the state,” Godoy said. “We were pleased to see it [publicized] and in this way, to be part of our discussion about how best to uphold the rights of all communities in Washington State.”