Fully Immersed

Evan Eurs ’18 put compassion into action as an intern with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

Many Tacoma residents may not be aware that one of the country’s largest immigration detention centers is in their city. Evan Eurs ’18 certainly wasn’t before he began an internship with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), in partnership with Puget Sound’s Summer Immersion Internship Program.

In fact, Evan, a Hispanic studies and mathematics major, knew very little about immigration, other than what he saw in the media. Working on cases for people held at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) gave him a new perspective. “People in detention don’t fit the stereotypes of undocumented immigrants,” he says. “The internship humanized detainees for me.”

With a skateboard under his arm and a baseball cap turned backwards on his head, Evan looks younger than he sounds as he enthuses about his summer working at NWIRP. He was “blown away” by having access to the detention center and being allowed to work one-on-one with clients. “It felt so above my role as an intern, but [NWIRP] had faith in me, they wanted the help, and they were like, ‘Yeah, you can do it.’”

He’d been surprised to learn that people in immigration court do not have the right to an attorney, an issue at the heart of NWIRP’s work. The organization began in Seattle with a single staff person recruiting volunteer attorneys to represent people fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. It has grown into one of the largest organizations in the country to provide legal assistance for immigrants, with more than 80 staff members in four offices, including two in Eastern Washington.

People in detention don’t fit the stereotypes of undocumented immigrants. The internship humanized detainees for me.”

– Evan Eurs ’18

The Tacoma office opened in 2005, after immigration detention moved from downtown Seattle to the Tacoma tideflats. The NWDC has 1,575 beds, many times the number the former immigration building in Seattle could hold, a sign of how immigration enforcement and detention have increased in the last decade.

Tucked away in an industrial area east of downtown, the nondescript building that houses the detention center stands out from nearby warehouses and factories only because of the barbed-wire fencing that surrounds it. Evan had never been inside any kind of detention center, and was shocked by how strictly the NWDC controls people.

Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney for NWIRP’s Tacoma office, says that immigration detention is not technically a punishment, like prison. “It’s an administrative convenience while the case is processing,” he says. “Folks aren’t there for any criminal charges. But the private company, GEO, that runs [NWDC] has modeled it on a maximum-security prison. There’s barbed wire, there are five or six doors to go through, folks are in their cell for 22 hours a day. So it looks and feels a lot like a prison.”

The hardest part of detention is that people do not know how long they will be there. “There is a psychological impact of having no idea when it could end,” he says. “We had a client who we were finally able to get released, who was there for seven years.” 

All of the people that NWIRP assists at the detention center are facing deportation. Some are undocumented migrants; others have refugee status or green cards. Some have criminal convictions; others face challenges to their immigration status.

In the office, a stack of signs which read, "Immigrant rights are human rights."

Many are seeking political asylum, based on what the government calls a “well-founded fear” of returning to their home countries. Asylum-seekers may come from places where natural disasters have made living conditions untenable, or they may be fleeing violence or persecution. Over the last year, NWIRP has seen several hundred Haitian asylum-seekers at the NWDC, most of whom fled Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

“An asylum-seeker [may have] thought the best idea was to come with their family and turn themselves in at the border,” says Jenna Golan-Strieb ’15, NWIRP legal advocate and intern coordinator. But in recent years, many asylum-seekers have been taken into detention, even though U.S. policy has historically allowed asylum-seekers to stay in the community while they wait for a decision. Now they may be detained anywhere from a few months up to several years until their cases resolve.

Evan, who is bilingual, worked on many asylum cases, translating applications and personal documents for Spanish speakers, gathering documentation, and researching conditions in the countries they were fleeing. “Interns do work that’s real and useful. We give them a lot of responsibility. We throw them in completely,” Jenna says. “Evan’s work has been incredible in getting us a step further with clients.”

Evan says that his experience changed his thinking “about immigration and the prison-industrial complex, and how complicated immigration is. It’s one thing to learn about it in class and another to see it for yourself.” He continued to volunteer at NWIRP through the fall semester, and staff members hope that his enthusiasm will inspire others to learn more about their work.

A year ago, the organization’s Tacoma office was able to add more capacity and began working with people out of detention in Tacoma and the South Sound area, including children who arrived in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors, or as victims of domestic violence, trafficking, and other crimes.

In 2016, NWIRP provided legal assistance to 3,430 people detained and facing deportation at NWDC. Yet, only 15 percent of people in detention have lawyers. According to Tim, a person is over 1,100 percent more likely to win their case in detention with a lawyer than without one.

“Detention is so destructive, from a lawyerly point of view, to people’s ability to make their case,” Tim says. “And it’s so destructive to families and communities when someone’s detained, what it means for kids, for health, for school. The ripple effects are enormous.”

Tim believes that detention centers should be closed around the country. “No matter what your views are on immigration law, I don’t think detention has to be a part of that,” he says. “People can go through the immigration court system and end up winning or losing a case, but [they should] do that while they’re with their family and have a chance to get a lawyer, get evidence in their case, and see if they qualify for immigration status under the laws.”

Meanwhile, there is plenty of work for interns like Evan.


By Dori Cahn
Published Feb. 1, 2018
Photos by Ross Mulhausen