Immigration detention center operator sues city of Tacoma

TACOMA, Wash.  — The private company that runs a federal immigration detention center in Tacoma has sued the city, claiming that it passed an ordinance last month to restrict the facility from expanding out of disagreement toward federal immigration policy and not over land use issues.

Florida-based GEO Group sued Tacoma in federal court Thursday, seeking to have the ordinance invalidated, The News Tribune reported.

"While city staff and officials may not agree with the federal government's current implementation of immigration policies, its attempt to disrupt these critical federal functions through land use regulations is beyond the city's land use regulatory authority," the lawsuit said.

The for-profit company runs the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma through a contract with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The facility opened in 2004 with 500 beds and now has 1,575 beds.

The lawsuit claims that the city's ordinance tried to prevent the facility from expanding because of political objections to President Donald Trump's immigration policies.

Deputy City Attorney Steve Victor said the ordinance was meant to protect economically valuable land in the port of Tacoma from encroachment by non-industrial uses, including detention and correctional facilities, the newspaper reported.

"In the challenged legislation, the city allows the GEO Group's existing location to remain in operation, but limits future expansion in the Port Maritime Industrial Zone. In the future, any similar facilities must be located in less economically sensitive zoning," Victor said in the statement.

He said the city was reviewing the claims but "maintain that the zoning and regulatory changes at issue are a lawful exercise of the city's authority."

GEO noted in its lawsuit that the City Council in 2000 unanimously passed a resolution declaring support for the facility and encouraging its development.

Soon after Trump took office in 2017, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and council members expressed disapproval at having the federal detention center in Tacoma. Some worried the facility could be expanded because of Trump's plan to aggressively deport those in the country illegally.

In March 2017, the Tacoma City Council approved an ordinance that limited where public correctional facilities can be located and banned new or expanded private correctional facilities across the city.

Two months later the council voted to roll back the ban on private facilities under advice from legal staff. Under the state's Growth Management Act, the center is considered an essential public facility and the city can't ban it outright, the News Tribune reported.

In February, the City Council passed another ordinance that created a new definition for detention facilities and strictly limited where they can be located.

GEO alleges that the local rules are pre-empted by federal law because it effectively prohibits federal immigration centers in the city.

GEO said in a statement that while the company does not take positions on issues related to immigration enforcement, "It is important to understand that banning a privately-operated immigration center in Tacoma will not stop or change federal immigration policies."