TACOMA — “Nous voulons la liberté,” Katie Franco of Port Townsend called out, as the jingle of a tambourine sounded beside her.
“We want freedom” is her message. It’s one of solidarity with the French-speaking Haitian people held at the Northwest Detention Center, some two hours’ drive from the North Olympic Peninsula.
Franco, a cofounder of the nonprofit Jefferson County Immigrants Rights Advocates (JCIRA), traveled with 10 others from both Jefferson and Clallam counties to Tacoma on Sunday.
As they stood outside the fence, they held signs, chanted and played percussion instruments to express what JCIRA wants: to give Haitian people asylum, not detention.
JCIRA works with La Resistencia, the statewide organization which supports immigrants imprisoned at the Tacoma facility.
Earlier this month, the group, which is in communication with detainees, learned that 17 Haitian asylum seekers are being held there.
The past few months have been cataclysmic for the already impoverished Caribbean country: President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in July. Then came a 7.2-magnitude earthquake Aug. 14; two days later, Tropical Storm Grace hit.
Tens of thousands of Haitians traveled to South America and, finding no refuge there, moved north to the U.S.-Mexico border. While some have come into this country to join family members, others are being processed by the U.S. Border Patrol and bused north.
For Franco and JCIRA, Haitian asylum seekers in the United States deserve a chance to rebuild their lives — as other immigrants seek to do.
“I’m against having a detention center here for anybody, and especially a for-profit detention center,” Franco said.
The Tacoma prison is one of 57 U.S. sites run by the GEO Group Inc., according to its website.
“What we’ve done with asylum seekers — people who are trying to pass our borders legally — it is just so wrong,” Franco added.
“I am so sorry for the Haitians. They have gone through so much.”
Franco said she doesn’t know whether JCIRA’s Sunday protest will change anything — “but at least if they hear us, they will know some people care.”
Mary Givins of Port Angeles, holding a blue, green and white sign saying “We support Haitian people,” stood beside Manuel Abrego, a member of La Resistencia. Born in El Salvador and now a resident of Mountlake Terrace, he said softly, “I am a person with experience.”
That experience was a year and a half in the Northwest Detention Center.
Alongside three other former detainees, he joined the JCIRA members on Sunday, holding a sign that read, “Welcome to our Haitian neighbors.”
“I think we are all neighbors. It doesn’t matter where you come from,” said Abrego, adding he communicates with current detainees by video call.
La Resistencia’s Maru Mora stepped forward to interpret for Rufina Reyes, a Spanish-speaking former detainee. Inside the Northwest Detention Center, inmates are not treated with basic respect, the two women told the group. Those who have medical conditions are neglected. They live under threat of deportation back to the countries they fled in fear for their lives, Mora added.
“We are human beings. We have souls,” she said.
Mora also urged the people outside the detention center to contact U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Call and email his office, she said. Advocate for prosecutorial discretion: the agency’s power to consider the circumstances of a migrant’s arrival in the country, their family and community ties, and other humanitarian factors.
Prosecutorial discretion should be used before deportation is considered, Mora believes.
JCIRA’s members are her allies. Franco and cofounder Libby Palmer tried to help Miguel, a Mexican immigrant who lived in Sequim, when he was held at the Northwest Detention Center. He had left Mexico so long ago that he scarcely remembered it. Miguel was deported and dumped in Guerrero without so much as a change of clothes, Palmer said.
She added that, while JCIRA was formed in 2017 to support immigrants and refugees in Jefferson County, the organization has worked with a number of people in Clallam County, especially Forks, which has a significant immigrant population.
Information about JCIRA’s history and activities can be found at JCIRA.org and on the group’s Facebook page.
As they departed Tacoma following Sunday’s protest, Palmer and JCIRA member Jean Walat reflected on the experience.
“It always energizes me” to assemble at the center, Walat said.
“I never know what’s going to happen,” Palmer added.
“It’s a way of sensitizing yourself. I can’t read another article about detention centers and feel as though it’s really going to make a change in me.
“It reminds you,” she said, “that it’s all real.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or email@example.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.