In response to 2014’s unprecedented number of women with their children caught crossing the border between Mexico and the United States —68,000 families — President Obama expanded on a program of family detention that had nearly been phased out in 2009. Family detention, where a woman is kept with her children until a deportation or asylum hearing can take place, had only 100 beds available daily in a small Berks, Pa., facility between 2009 and 2014. But with the opening of two new family detention centers in Texas and an expansion of the Berks facility, that number will reach about 3,700 in the next month and eventually balloon to 6,300.
The program was shut down when the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Texas won a settlement in a federal lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deplorable conditions for children at the T. Don Hutto family detention facility, a former medium security prison in Taylor, Tex. Those conditions included locking families in cells for 12 hours daily, depriving children of outdoor recreation, and forcing them to wear orange jail jumpsuits.
Nearly all of the families currently in the detention centers, which are less restrictive than normal prisons, are seeking asylum. The vast majority of those who arrived in the 2014 wave came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, countries that have seen a huge increase in violence in the past few years, largely due to Mexican drug cartels moving into those countries.
Proponents of family detention centers say that the facilities are family friendly, staffed with school teachers and social workers, and equipped with outdoor spaces for the children, and the facilities offer regular contact visitation. They also send a message to other families who might be considering illegally crossing into the States that detention is a possibility while their immigration status is investigated. Opponents of the centers say that despite pictures on walls and unlocked cell doors, it is still cruel, and illegal, to house children in detention centers. Opponents also note that people seeking refugee status have not traditionally been confined and that the monies being paid to the private prison companies that run the facilities could be better spent on aiding refugees who qualify to stay.
The newest ICE facility, the South Texas Family Residential Center, near Dilley, will house 2,400 mothers and children when completed. It will be run by Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison operator in the United States. The CCA will receive $276 per day per person from the federal government to run Dilley, a staggering $241 million per year. The CCA ran the T. Don Hutto facility when ICE was sued over conditions there.
While exact figures were not available for the smaller, GEO Group-run Karnes County Residential Facility, which houses 592 women and children, the cost per day per bed is probably similar to what CCA is getting for Dilley.
“I visited the Karnes facility last September,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an organization working to end the private prison industry. “And, yes, there are paintings on the walls, and there’s a small soccer field for the kids, but the reality is that prolonged detention is always detrimental to kids and their moms. And at Karnes, some of the women have been held for as long as nine months.”
Libal noted that those families seeking refugee status are not generally considered flight risks and are normally “given a notice to appear at a detention court and told to check in with an ICE worker and let go,” frequently to sponsors or family members already living in the United States. When they appear for their hearing, the mothers are interviewed about why they are seeking asylum. If they pass that “credible fear” interview, their request for asylum moves on through the system. If they do not pass the interview, they are scheduled for deportation.
According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, an organization dedicated to improving the lives and protecting the rights of women, children, and youth displaced by conflict and crisis, the most recent federal reports note that 88 percent of families recently seeking refugee status have passed their “credible fear” interview.
Katharina Obser, a program officer in the migrant rights and justice program with the Women’s Refugee Commission, told Fort Worth Weekly that “these are women who survived abuse and violence in their own countries. They’ve come here for protection, and the last thing we should do is lock them away.”
Obser toured the nearly complete Dilley facility last week. At the time of her visit, there were 792 women and children there. “My impressions were troubling,” she said. “It was striking how enormous and barren a facility it was.”
There are rows of small dormitories that house 12 people each, she said, limiting privacy. And there were only eight showers for every 120 detainees.
“The idea that we now have the largest immigration facility in the country and it’s being used to house survivors of violence in their home countries is really inappropriate,” she said. “Many of these families have ties to the community and could be released to other members of their family. Locking away these families in a remote facility without adequate services to meet the needs of women and children just isn’t what we should be doing.”
Christina Parker, the immigrations program director for Grassroots Leadership, helped organize a protest at Dilley on May 2, which was attended by more than 600 people. “When you look at the Dilley facility, it doesn’t look like a prison,” she said. “There are rows of little trailers set up, sort of like a camp. But there are still armed guards, and the kids are still locked up. And they shouldn’t be.”
Parker pointed to a decision in a lawsuit brought against the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the precursor to ICE, in 1987 by the ACLU over the detention of illegal immigrant children. The 1997 determination, known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, required that juveniles “be held in the least restrictive setting appropriate to their age and special needs, generally, in a non-secure facility licensed to care for dependent, as opposed to delinquent, minors.”
Parker said that the suit had been revived in light of the recent expansion of family detention. “There’s a decision expected in a week,” she said. “The law says children cannot be held in secure, prison-like facilities. They must be held in licensed child-care facilities.”
While Parker noted that the upcoming ruling could do away with family detention altogether, it could also result in ICE saying simply that the children will be separated from their mothers, leaving the mothers in detention facilities and placing the children in child care.
“ICE has made the threat that they might go in that direction rather than simply shut the facilities down,” she said.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association, which handles many of the refugee cases, notes that there are other approaches that the government could take instead of detention. Ankle or wrist monitors, for instance, cost pennies a day, and the families are not generally considered a security or flight risk –– those who have passed their “credible fear” interview and have a good chance of finally getting asylum have an incentive to keep from disappearing. In a recent blog post on the AILA website, the group noted that “detention should be a last resort, used only when other means of supervision are not feasible and only after a truly individualized assessment of someone’s public safety and flight risk.”
Two recent hunger strikes by women at the Karnes family facility as well as the May 2 protest at Dilley brought the issue to the attention of the Obama administration, which promised to review family detention policies. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid responded to that review in a May 15 e-mail statement: “Ending family detention is the only answer. Detaining mothers and their children who are fleeing extreme poverty, persecution, abuse, and violence is unacceptable and goes against our most fundamental values. … There are many alternatives to detention that are humane, cost-efficient, and do not undermine children’s mental health and overall wellbeing.”
CCA, which stands to lose nearly a quarter of a billion dollars annually if Reid gets his wish, did not respond to an e-mail query regarding family detention. The GEO Group did respond to inquiries about its Karnes family residence and the two recent hunger strikes there. In an e-mail, GEO Vice President of Corporate Media Pablo E. Paez noted that, “The Karnes County Residential Center provides high-quality care in a safe, clean, and family-friendly environment. … Our company has consistently denied allegations to the contrary.”
Libal is not convinced: “No matter how you think about it, putting little kids in prisons for months at a time is the worst thing you could do to them.”