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In Tacoma, Washington, Volunteers Offer Aid Outside Immigration Detention Center


Every day, nearly 40,000 people are held in immigration detention centers around the U.S. That number is expected to rise as the feds step up enforcement. Some of these detainees are let out on bond each day while their cases are pending. In Tacoma, Wash., Liz Jones of member station KUOW reports on a group of volunteers that watches for those people who get released.

LIZ JONES, BYLINE: It's late afternoon when a young man is escorted out of the Tacoma Detention Center past a tall chain-link fence into a bleak, industrial area.

SCOTT GODDARD: It's show time.

JONES: Scott Goddard is a volunteer with a nonprofit group called AID NW.

GODDARD: Good afternoon. Buenos tardes. Welcome.

JOSE GONZALEZ: Thank you, sir.

JONES: The man getting released is Jose Gonzalez. He's 21, from San Diego. His family came to the U.S. illegally when he was 5. He was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, and transferred here to Tacoma. Before he got released, he knew to look for this volunteer group and the RV they keep parked outside.

GONZALEZ: In there, inmates tell me that there's, like, a trailer that helps people. And I'm like, OK, yeah.

JONES: The aid group has converted a 36-foot Winnebago into a makeshift welcome center. Goddard points to the welcome sign out front in 30 languages.

GODDARD: (Speaking German) Is German, but I'm not sure we've ever had any German people coming out of the detention center here.

JONES: ICE operates more than a hundred immigration jails like this across the country. Tacoma's is one of the largest. Every day here, a few people are let go. Some win asylum to stay in the U.S. Others like Gonzalez get released on bond while their deportation cases are pending.

GODDARD: Welcome.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

GODDARD: Come on in.

PEGGY HERMAN: What's your best language?

GONZALEZ: English - English is fine.

HERMAN: Perfect.

JONES: Gonzalez takes a seat inside the RV.

GODDARD: It's a little warm in here, we know, but...

GONZALEZ: It's all right. You guys have a phone charger?

GODDARD: Yes, seems to be always one of the first requests.

JONES: Inside the RV, people can make phone calls, wait for a ride or get help to their next destination. Similar support programs for detainees have cropped up in other states, but many detention centers are rural and tough to access. Peggy Herman with AID NW helped launch this welcome center in Tacoma two years ago.

HERMAN: The guarantee that we make is there will be volunteers here every day to address whatever needs released immigrants have. That's our commitment.

JONES: Herman says more than 800 immigrants came through the trailer this past year, and they're braced for more. ICE arrests spiked nearly 40 percent in the first four months of this year. Gonzalez's attorney says he has no criminal record and that he landed on ICE's radar after they arrested his father. Gonzalez was detained four months. He arrived at the RV with a few belongings in a clear garbage bag.

GONZALEZ: When they arrested me, they had me in the same clothes for, like, two weeks so...

GODDARD: (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: I'm sorry, this is kind of...

GODDARD: Did they wash them for you while you were...

GONZALEZ: ...No, they did not.

JONES: Goddard hands him a brand-new backpack and shows him to the back of the RV.

GODDARD: There are socks, sweaters, pants...

GONZALEZ: OK, sir, thank you.

GODDARD: Stock up on snacks, fruit, power bars...

JONES: The aid group also runs a small shelter nearby. Gonzalez will crash there tonight and head home to California on the train tomorrow. He called his mom to reassure her.

GONZALEZ: I told her that there's people here that are willing to help me and not worry where I'm going to stay. She said, OK, my son. I'll be waiting for you.

JONES: As Jose Gonzalez gathers up his supplies, a volunteer mentions that pocket money is also available for those who need it. But Gonzalez shakes his head, then fishes a few dollars from his bag. He wants to contribute.

GONZALEZ: We're all in this together (laughter) because there's some people that come out here and they really don't have nothing.

HERMAN: That's right.

JONES: He gives what he can for other detainees who will come later. For NPR News, I'm Liz Jones in Tacoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Year started with KUOW: 2006