Recently I toured the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. This is the privately run federal lock-up for immigrants - legal and illegal - facing deportation.
The place was built to hold 500 detainees, but it's currently housing nearly 1,000. Most are from Mexico, but certainly not all. The daily manifest reads like the index in the back of a world atlas.
During my visit, the detainees didn't hesitate to complain. They say the place is crowded, there aren't enough bathrooms, and the food isn't good.
The staff responds that national standards are being met. I must say the staff was very open about letting me see the place. I even came home with the month's food menu. You can listen to the story I did about the Northwest Detention Center for public radio here.
But here's something that wasn't in my radio story.
While I was on the tour, I was taken through the medical unit. There I saw a bearded, long-haired man who was locked in a medical isolation cell. He seemed disturbed. I asked about him.
It turns out he's from Yemen and has been staging hunger strikes. At one point he was down to 90 pounds and - by court order – had to be force-fed. When I saw him he was eating again, but still under medical observation.
The Detention Center staff told me the hunger strikes are over small things: He wants a private cell, he wants only meat and vegetables to eat, etc.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials were quick to point out that their job is to keep the detainees "safe and secure" - and they assured me this man is getting very good care.
So why is he locked-up at the Northwest Detention Center? It turns out this detainee has exhausted all of his appeals for asylum and has been ordered deported back to Yemen.
But in order to actually make the trip home, the detainee himself must request a "travel document" from the Yemeni government. According to ICE officials, that requires providing basic information like your name and date of birth.
Well, this detainee is refusing to cooperate and request the travel document. So there he sits in limbo - no longer allowed to stay in the U.S., but unwilling to return home.
ICE officials explained to me that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that deportees must be processed and removed within 180 days. If that can't be accomplished, then ICE must consider releasing them in the U.S. But in this case, because the detainee isn't cooperating, the 180-day clock is stopped. Theoretically, that means this man from Yemen could sit in the Northwest Detention Center indefinitely.
I would like to find out more about this detainee and possibly do a story about him. It's my observation that in all the recent debate over immigration from Mexico, the story of asylum-seekers has been mostly lost.
Here's the problem. I don't know his name. The obvious solution is to call up ICE and say, "Hey, what's the name of that guy from Yemen who was on a hunger strike?"
Well, ICE - citing privacy issues - won't reveal the names of the people it locks up. Since immigration violations are civil, not criminal, the detainees have the right to privacy. Conveniently for ICE, that makes it very hard for reporters to report on, say, the people who are detained in workplace raids.
Unlike police who release the names of people they arrest on suspicion of a crime, ICE detainees vanish into a black hole. Basically, ICE treats immigration detainees like patients in a hospital – no information is released unless you have the secret password.
OK, so back to the guy from Yemen. Knowing that I can't get ICE to give me his name, I asked for the name of his attorney. Immigration detainees, unlike criminal suspects, do not have the right to counsel. However, my hunch is that a guy who went through several court appeals for asylum likely has a lawyer.
Last week, ICE's spokesperson left me a voice mail. First, she wanted to make it clear that she doesn't serve as a public relations representative for detainees. Second, she said she isn't allowed to give me the name of the attorney for the man from Yemen. Instead, she suggested - and I'm not making this up - that I start calling around to immigration lawyers in the area to see if I stumble across the one who has this client.
Needless to say, an e-mail has gone out to several immigration attorneys in the area, and hopefully I'll get lucky.
In the meantime - assuming he hasn't been deported in the past couple of weeks – there's a man from Yemen inside the Northwest Detention Center who might want to tell his story to the public.
Fortunately for him, the U.S. government is not only keeping him "safe and secure," it's also protecting him from prying reporters like me.