Jeyakumar Ajanth is grinning as he climbs out of the punishing heat into a large, carpeted RV filled with bottled water, granola bars, and fresh fruit. His English is limited, but he’s got the key word in spades. “Happy! Happy, yes, I am really happy! 86 days, I stay,” he says, pointing through the RV door across the razor-wire fence to the Northwest Detention Center, one of the largest Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in the United States, located in a industrial corner of Tacoma near the ports.
Ajanth, originally from Sri Lanka, has a brother in Buffalo, N.Y., and he’s pretty sure he has a flight out tonight. But thanks to the Post-Detention Welcome Center—a cheery mobile home purchased by Advocates for Immigrants in Detention North West (AID NW) and, starting July 15, parked five days a week just outside the release gate—he’s got someone to shake his hand and check his plane ticket. Good thing, since, it turns out, there is no plane ticket.
“We’re basically travel agents,” laughs Peggy Herman, an immigration lawyer and board treasurer for AID NW. She’s been here every weekday from 3 to 7 p.m. for two weeks,working to get the Welcome Center up and running and train its volunteers (today there are three). With lots of pantomiming and gesticulating and several phone calls, she finally gets Ajanth’s brother’s contact and credit-card information so she can put Ajanth on a plane out of Sea-Tac tomorrow. Tonight she’ll offer him one of two apartments that AID NW rents in Tacoma for this purpose: detainees who’ve been released—either on bond, with their cases still pending, like Ajanth, or for good, with permission to stay in the U.S.—and have no connections in Tacoma.
“I don’t know how people navigated this before,” Herman says, heaving a sigh and shaking her head, balancing a scribbled notepad in her lap while her thumbs pump a smart phone. Before the Welcome Center existed, released detainees might have arranged for family to pick them up, or for someone from an advocacy organization like AID NW to meet them. But often they’d be waiting outside the fence for an unknown amount of time, in all weathers, with no restroom, no water, no food, and no phone calls. Even if released detainees did have some kind of a plan, “they didn’t have someone here immediately to say, ‘Whatever your plan is, stay safe and comfortable until your plan works out,’ ” she explains. “ ‘And if your plan doesn’t work out, we’re here to give you another safe, secure plan.’ ”
A few months ago, AID NW board members all sat down and decided that a physical Welcome Center—an official welcoming committee, if you will—was what was really needed to support new releases. “It’s a leap of faith for us because we acquired the RV without really having funding for it,” Herman says. “Now we have a $25,000 debt. But we said, ‘No, we’ve been talking about it, and it’s time to do it.’ ” There can be up to 1,575 detainees in the Northwest Detention Center at any one time, and the vast majority end up getting deported. For the past few weeks, ICE guards have been telling the minority who are released, either permanently or temporarily, to stop at the RV on their way out.
Welcome Center volunteers can help those who’ve won their cases get rolling on official paperwork, too, for obtaining Social Security numbers, work authorization permits, and state and federal refugee benefits. For those released on bond, with a long, uncertain process ahead of them, there’s a friendly face, a snack, and, if needed, a travel agent. There are also a whole bunch of donated clothing, toiletries, and backpacks. “When they can get rid of the plastic bags that ICE gave them for their personal belongings,” says Herman, “it’s humanizing.” Another humanizing factor: having an RV big enough to include a separate room with a door for those who could use a space to decompress privately after weeks or months confined with other people.
To Herman’s knowledge, there’s nothing like it outside any ICE detention center anywhere else in the country. And so far, so good: “The biggest investment is the actual physical vehicle, and we have it. With the community coming by and providing all the other resources, we will continue to be here as long as the detention center is.”
Jael Balderas Ramirez, 22, stands in the sunshine eating cookies, enjoying his first 15 minutes as a free man after four months inside pending charges of illegally entering the country. Ramirez arrived in the U.S., undocumented, when he was 3, and all of his family is in Oregon; he doesn’t know anyone in Mexico. His family scrounged for months to put together the bond money, and his court date is still ahead. But right now, he’s ecstatic.
“Water and cookies!” he says, laughing. “What else could we ask for?” Without the RV, he says, he’d have just been “standing in the sun, with no water or nothing, waiting for my family, no phone calls or nothing. They just told me to wait here.”
When, about 20 minutes later, his family does arrive, Ramirez’ dad runs at him with a choked sob. He clamps his son to his chest and the rest of the family piles on, crying. All the volunteers—Peggy Herman included—start tearing up, too.
“Detainees are always worried about what’s going to happen next,” says Herman. “It’s not just the next hour. It’s the next month. It’s the next year. And so having someone immediately assure them that for right now all they need to worry about is getting to their family, getting to their friends—that’s what we’re here for. ‘Don’t worry about what’s going to happen in your case. Right here, right now, refresh yourself, and enjoy the liberty you just received.’ ”