TACOMA, Washington — Brightly colored American-themed murals cover the walls inside one of the country’s largest immigrant detention centers.
The paintings, which include renderings of the American flag, Mount Rushmore, a world map, and various Major League Football team logos, are unexpected in a building where people sitting behind bars are waiting to learn if they will be deported from the country.
The artwork covers the walls of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Northwest Processing Center, a regional detention center where those in custody go through legal proceedings to determine if they will be deported or freed. The murals are impressive in size and scope, and they were done by eight immigrants who were held in custody between 2012 and 2016.
Fifteen murals, each 10 feet tall and varying in length, line the halls of this warehouse-like building in downtown Tacoma. Private sector company GEO Group, one of the country’s largest private prison operators, maintains the 1,575-person adult facility.
Nathalie Asher, Seattle Field Office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, said during the tour the facility had looked “pretty bland” but now has “amazing pieces of art.”
A GEO spokeswoman said drawings were submitted by detainees for GEO and ICE’s approval before painting began. GEO spent approximately $2,000 on painting supplies, though the actual work was done on a volunteer basis under its Volunteer Work Program, which pays detainees $1 per hour for doing facility laundry, kitchen, cleaning, and other types of manual labor.
“The mural painting started with one individual with incredible artistic talent. He painted three murals starting in 2012. Since then, seven other artists have painted an additional 15 additional murals,” a GEO spokeswoman wrote in an email following an ICE-led tour of the facility in September.
The artists have all since left the facility, though GEO declined to share the outcomes of their detention. Seven of the artists who painted the murals were identified: Julio Carcamo-Aguilar, Antonio Argueta-Rivera, Renzi Lumen, Nestor Miton-Tejada, Luis Rodriguez-Arenivar, Mario Ulloa-Bermudez, and Andres Hernandez-Zepeda.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, sued GEO in 2017 on the basis the company was taking advantage of detainees and not compensating them fairly for their work, including in the kitchen, laundry room, and cleaning the facility. Ferguson said the men and women in custody ought to make $12 per hour, the state minimum wage. The case was dismissed in late September by U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan of the Western District of Washington.
ICE did not share if other facilities have similar murals. ICE uses 10 other contract detention facilities such as this one, as well as government-owned centers, local government facilities such as jails and prisons, and family centers to detain people weeks to months at a time. While detained, a federal immigration judge will hear each person’s case and rule on whether they can remain in the country or must return home.
Most immigrants detained in the facility in the early- to mid-2010s would have been arrested by ICE ERO officers based in Alaska, Washington state, or Oregon. The facility has since been transformed to accommodate a number of people who illegally crossed the border, including many of those arrested in local communities.