Press Releases

Representative Smith and Senator Murray led the Washington state lawmakers in a letter to the heads of the NWDC requesting weekly updates on the impact of COVID-19 at the detention center 

ICYMI: Officials on Friday confirmed the first positive COVID-19 test at the Northwest detention center in Tacoma – MORE HERE

Members: “As the numbers of detainees and detention facility staff infected with COVID-19 continues to climb, we share the concerns that public health experts have expressed regarding the continued spread of the coronavirus pandemic in detention facilities”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Led by U.S. Representative Adam Smith (D-WA, 9th) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), a group of Washington state lawmakers today urged leaders of Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center to provide regular updates on the steps they are taking to mitigate and respond to any potential outbreaks of COVID-19 at the facility. The lawmakers sent a letter to the head of GEO Group, the company that operates the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Officer for the NWDC requesting that they provide weekly briefings to the lawmakers regarding health and safety conditions at the facility and the impact of COVID-19 on detainees and staff. Representative Smith and Senator Murray were joined on the letter on the letter by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), as well as Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA, 7th), Denny Heck (D-WA, 10th), Derek Kilmer (D-WA, 6th), and Rick Larsen (D-WA, 2nd).

“The NWDC is one of the largest ICE dedicated facilities in the country, and as the numbers of detainees and detention facility staff infected with COVID-19 continues to climb, we share the concerns that public health experts have expressed regarding the continued spread of the coronavirus pandemic in detention facilities,” the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers continued: “We appreciate your prompt attention to the issues we have raised, and look forward to weekly congressional telephonic briefings surrounding the safety practices of the NWDC amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”

The lawmakers’ letter follows reports of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 case at the Tacoma facility. In previous briefings with the lawmakers, NWDC officials have not indicated that they are taking the necessary measures to protect detainees and staff from COVID-19. In an April 24th telephone briefing, ICE officials informed the Washington state lawmakers that they had identified 128 detainees for potential release because they are were at high risk for severe illness due to the COVID-19 threat, but at the time had only released 16 detainees and did not plan to release any more. During that briefing, ICE officials also told the lawmakers that despite testing more than 1,500 detainees across the country, only 7 detainees at NWDC had been tested since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In previous briefings, ICE officials have not been clear as to whether proper social distancing at NWDC is being practiced, or is even possible with the number of detainees in the facility.

Read full letter below or HERE.

Dear Mr. Zoley and Ms. Asher,

Given the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and our continued conversations with staff and officials within the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) and at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we write to request a weekly telephonic briefing for congressional offices in Washington state in order to ensure further steps are being taken by GEO and the NWDC to plan, mitigate, and respond to any potential outbreak at the Northwest Detention Center. This is especially important since last Friday, May 8, ICE confirmed that a detainee tested “recovered positive” during medical intake screening upon arrival at NWDC, the first known positive case at the NWDC to date.

As of April 25th, 2020, ICE has reported 29,675 as their total detained population. Further, 869 detainees, 42 ICE employees at detention facilities, and 102 ICE employees not assigned to detention facilities have tested positive for COVID-19.  The NWDC is one of the largest ICE dedicated facilities in the country, and as the numbers of detainees and detention facility staff infected with COVID-19 continues to climb, we share the concerns that public health experts have expressed regarding the continued spread of the coronavirus pandemic in detention facilities.

In our congressional telephonic briefing on April 24th, 2020, ICE informed us that 128 detainees at NWDC had been identified for potential release based on their higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19. However, at the time of the call, only 16 people had actually been released and ICE indicated that they did not plan to release additional detainees from the pool of 128 people identified as medically vulnerable. In addition, ICE stated that only 7 detainees have been tested in total at the NWDC since the COVID-19 outbreak, despite the fact that ICE has tested 1,528 detainees nation-wide, and Washington state was among the first states to be hit by the COVID-19 outbreak. We express concern over the delayed release and testing of these individuals, and would like to continue receiving weekly congressional telephonic briefings from ICE and officials operating the NWDC regarding the testing and release of other medically vulnerable individuals.

On congressional telephonic briefings, ICE has also claimed that it set an occupancy threshold of 70% inside its facilities to reduce the number of detainees, but also admitted that this threshold was likely insufficient to meet the social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ICE reported to our staffs that its occupancy is currently at 45%, well below this 70% figure, but equally could not confirm whether this threshold is actually sufficient for maintaining social distancing guidelines. Even more concerning were comments made by officials on congressional telephonic briefings that indicated that ICE officers could not necessarily enforce social distancing guidelines among detainees in the center.

We appreciate your prompt attention to the issues we have raised, and look forward to weekly congressional telephonic briefings surrounding the safety practices of the NWDC amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Democrats sent a letter to the Director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) in strong opposition to the agency’s recent guidance allowing new service, supply, and construction contracts related to coronavirus response to avoid federal affirmative action requirements. The letter was signed by Committee on Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (WA-09), Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03), Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12).

In March, the OFCCP issued a National Interest Exemption (NIE), which has been used in regional emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires but has little precedent for national emergencies. In the letter, the Members note that federal contracts to address the COVID-19 pandemic crisis will be magnitudes greater in cost and likely far longer in duration than those of previous emergencies. 

The Members asked the Department to disclose how many contracts the NIE will impact, how many qualified candidates will lose opportunities for employment, and whether the NIE will further weaken enforcement of our civil rights laws with respect to federal government contractors. 

“In issuing the NIE, the OFCCP did not present any compelling evidence that qualified contractors needed for the coronavirus response have been deterred from bidding due to OFCCP’s requirements for affirmative action plans,” the Members wrote. “It is not only important for all Americans to have equal access to federal opportunities; it is equally important for the federal government to benefit from the contributions of a diverse group of people in this critical effort to address the largest public health crisis of our time.”

The Members also expressed concerns with OFCCP’s history of challenges in its oversight of federal contractors, including separate reviews by both the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and OFCCP’s Inspector General revealing OFCCP’s failure to focus on compliance and, as a result, a failure to ensure that hiring by federal contractors fairly reflects the diversity of our nation’s workforce. 

To read the full text of the letter, click here.

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KENT, WASHINGTON – Congressman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) today issued the following statement after visiting the Northwest Harvest’s food distribution center in Kent, Washington where workers, volunteers and the National Guard are packing and delivering food to families in need as a result of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Today I had the opportunity to visit Northwest Harvest’s food distribution center in Kent that helps provide food for families throughout the region. Food banks are instrumental in making sure Washingtonians have food, and they have worked to find creative ways to ensure food can be delivered safely and efficiently while facing challenging circumstances and a huge increase in demand due to the economic impact of the pandemic.

“It was also great to see members of the Washington National Guard assisting with operations at Northwest Harvest. Hundreds of Guardsmen have been mobilized by the state of Washington to support food banks across Washington. The National Guard joined countless workers and volunteers at food banks who have dedicated themselves to serving the community. It was an honor to see these frontline workers at Northwest Harvest and I commend them for their commitment to helping others. 

“While food banks like Northwest Harvest are doing a tremendous job, they are going to need more support from Congress to keep up with the growing demand for food assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most critical ways we can support food banks and ensure individuals and families do not go hungry is to increase the minimum SNAP benefit in the next COVID-19 relief package. I will do everything I can to fight for this because families deserve more support and food banks need our help.”

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) today issued the following statement after the Trump Administration notified Congress that it intends to partially backfill military construction projects that were robbed to fund the border wall by pilfering additional funding from the European Deterrence Initiative and other overseas projects, diverting focus from the COVID-19 response:

“As this Administration continues to gut projects that are critical to our national security, it is clear no matter how many billions President Trump steals for his vanity wall on the southern border it will never be enough. The Administration still has $2 billion in unobligated military construction funds that they redirected for the wall last year. Rather than moving these funds back to the military construction projects they were originally intended for, the Administration continues to find ways to adversely impact projects that support military readiness and deterrence in Europe.

“The President falsely takes credit for ‘rebuilding’ the military, when in reality his theft of DoD dollars has led to the cancellation of 128 military construction projects both at home and abroad. Now – despite Congress’ refusal to endorse this theft – the Trump Administration is attempting to backfill these projects by cutting funding for the European Deterrence Initiative and other overseas projects. Our partners and allies rely on the support of EDI funds to prevent Russian aggression in the region and these cuts will have real, lasting effects on our national security.

“Furthermore, we know the border wall simply does not work. The wall has already been cut through, tunneled under, swept away by floods, and blown over by winds. It is an embarrassing waste of taxpayer dollars.

“As the country grapples with a once-in-a-generation health crisis, the full power of the federal government should be focused on one thing: our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, thanks to this Administration’s wasteful policies, the US Army Corps of engineers and other DoD elements that could be focused on COVID-19 are still working to help execute a campaign promise that does nothing to support our national security.”

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) issued the following statement for the Congressional Record on the importance of U.S. leadership and investments in global health and development in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak:

"Government and public health officials in the U.S. have started grappling with how to reopen the economy amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of this discussion has understandably focused on what we need to do here in the U.S. such as drastically expanding testing capacity and hiring additional personnel to conduct a massive amount of contact tracing. For us to be prepared to prevent outbreaks here at home, however, we also have to think beyond our borders.

"The reality of infectious diseases like COVID-19 is that outbreaks anywhere in the world threaten transmission here in the U.S. The pandemic has upended countries in almost every corner of the world, but the impact on developing countries will be especially devastating. Not only do these countries already have low-resourced health systems but many are facing other challenges caused by conflict, climate change, droughts, migration and displacement. Their ability to prevent, contain, and respond to outbreaks is severely limited, making assistance from the international community critical.

"While the prevalence of COVID-19 in most developing countries remains unknown due to limited testing, the impact of the crisis is already taking its toll. The economic fallout from the pandemic will hit vulnerable populations the hardest; hundreds of millions of people could be pushed into poverty. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has warned of a looming food crisis caused by significant strains on the global food supply chain. By the end of this year, the number of people on the brink of starvation around the world could double.

"In the short-term, the U.S. must bring significant investments in emergency economic and humanitarian relief to the table. The potential for drastic increases in poverty and widespread famine will foster further instability and displacement. Progress in developing countries to reduce conflict, increase economic opportunity, and promote good governance will be set back. Providing immediate additional resources to combat COVID-19 in other countries will not only alleviate the humanitarian crisis and reduce its potential destabilizing impacts, but it will also help prevent new outbreaks here in the U.S.

"In the long run, the work to prevent future outbreaks and combat the next pandemic is never-ending. The investments we make today in global health and development will help determine our ability to prevent and combat future outbreaks. For decades, unfortunately, this work has been underfunded. We have to increase our funding for global health security to strengthen health systems in developing countries so they are better prepared to contain diseases and prevent outbreaks. Investments in development and economic assistance, global health, and humanitarian relief are also vital for countries to improve their outbreak response and recovery. Efforts to cut these programs and gut key agencies such as USAID, the State Department, and the CDC are short-sighted and harm the long-term health and economic wellbeing of the U.S.

"In the coming months and years, a lot of attention will be given to questions around how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded and how we prevent and better mitigate future outbreaks. We must use this opportunity to reinforce the value of U.S. global leadership and make the case for strengthened investments in global health and development. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder that these investments are critical to protecting the health, economic, and security interests of the U.S."

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