When I revamped The Goodis Center’s website, I decided to also wipe out my blog and start over from scratch. Having done that, this marks my first entry on the new Goodis Center blog. The subject of this inaugural blogpost is a new immigration detention facility in Karnes County, Texas, which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be opening this Tuesday, Valentine’s Day. How romantic…
In early 2010, I began an intensive study of documented human rights abuses in United States immigration detention facilities, focusing on one facility near Tacoma, WA, and another near Taylor, TX. My research is ongoing, but I hope to update and expand the report over the next few months and release it to the public in due time. Until that research is complete, I’ll refrain from making too many broad statements about the current state of this nation’s immigration enforcement practices.
What I will say, however, is that the Karnes County detention center merits a critical eye from the public.
ICE is touting the new facility—the first facility designed and constructed with consideration for the agency’s 2009 commitment to reform the immigration detention system and shift away from its longtime reliance on jails and jail-like facilities—as a model for reform. That 2009 public commitment came after years of independent and governmental reviews raised one red flag after another, reporting inconsistencies between facilities and varying levels of human rights abuses throughout the immigration detention system nationwide. Considering the gravity of the situation, and the amount of time ICE has had to effect reform, we should expect nothing less than a model facility.
Unfortunately, ICE has a history of failing to live up to their promises. The T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility opened in 2006 after ICE retrofitted a county jail in Texas to become a first-of-its-kind family detention center. The idea behind the detention center, which is one of the subjects of my ongoing study, was to keep detained families together, rather than separating children from their parents and spouses from their partners.
In reality, ICE and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)—a private corrections corporation that maintains prisons and detention centers across the country—had no idea what they were getting into. Detaining small children in a former county jail proved troublesome and, as many independent reviews cited, dangerous for the children. Guards were not trained to deal with children, and the resulting circumstances outraged the local community to the point of protests outside the detention center’s gates chanting “T. Don Hutto has got to go!”
Admitting their mistake, ICE closed their celebrated family detention center and reopened it as a women-only detention center in 2009, again touting the place as a model for reform. A short time later, allegations of rape and other abuses began to surface. While one guard was arrested and convicted for multiple assaults, many questions remain as to the viability of the detention center and its place as a “model facility.”
Given these trends, there’s no telling whether ICE has learned from its mistakes, or whether it’s just going to keep making more of them. While the new facility in Karnes County is being lauded by ICE officials for moving decisively away from jails and jail-like facilities, many questions remain. As a recent release from Human Rights First explains:
In October 2011 Human Rights First released its report, “Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the US Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review.” In it were recommendations for ICE’s successful switch to this new detention model. It included the following findings:
- More “normalized” conditions in detention are actually touted as best practice in the corrections context and can help increase safety inside a facility;
- Despite its 2009 reform commitments, the United States continues to hold the overwhelming majority of its nearly 400,000 detained asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees in jails and jail-like facilities across the country;
- A full 50 percent of immigration detainees are held in actual jails, a proportion that has not decreased in the past two years;
- U.S. taxpayers will spend more than $2 billion to maintain this system in 2012 – more than 28 times ICE’s budget for more cost-effective Alternatives to Detention, which save more than $110 per detainee per day; and
- Many of the individuals whom ICE will hold at the new facility are appropriate candidates for Alternatives to Detention or community-based release programs.
Furthermore, groups such as Human Rights First which will have representatives inspecting the new facility on Valentine’s Day are already raising some serious concerns over the new facility, particularly in relation to the detainees’ due process rights.
Karnes County is located one hour from San Antonio and two hours from Austin. Detainees at Karnes will reportedly have their removal cases heard via video-conference rather than in person, because there will be no immigration judges on site. Legal service providers in Austin and San Antonio are under-resourced to meet the legal needs of hundreds of new detainees in the region.
“If Congress is going to fund detention and removal, they also need to provide funding for immigration judges to hear their cases – in person – and for detainees to receive basic legal information through the Legal Orientation Program at all detention facilities, including Karnes,” says Epstein. “While we welcome the development of a facility with conditions more appropriate for civil immigration detainees, ICE should not open any new facility without immigration judges in place, and adequately funded legal resources available.”
That said, here’s hoping ICE got it right this time.
The Karnes facility will be maintained by ICE and the GEO Group, Inc., another private corrections and detention company similar to the CCA.
If you want to learn more about the facilities mentioned in this blog, stay tuned for updates on the book I’m preparing on this subject. In the meantime, a quick Google search will get you a ton of results. Or, if you’re more moved by video, check out The Least of These, a documentary about the former family detention center in Texas.