Almost exactly two years ago, I spent Spring Break with five other law students and our fearless leader, Professor Heather Scavone, at Karnes County Residential Center about an hour outside of San Antonio, Texas. Karnes has been referred to as "baby jail". It is a detention facility for women and children (yes, children) caught crossing the border, most of whom are fleeing unfathomable gang-related and domestic violence in Central America.
These women and children are treated as inmates. There are bars on the windows and locks on their cell doors. The only "crime" they have been charged with is attempting to enter the United States without documentation. While the children have the opportunity to attend on-site "school", their mothers are not allowed to leave the facility, and face months of boredom with nothing to occupy their thoughts other than the prospect of a better life in the United States or the horror of the life they left behind.
We worked at a non-profit organization called Raices, which provides pro bono legal representation in immigration court for immigrants detained when crossing the US/Mexico border. Our team helped draft bond motions and prepare asylum cases for women who had already spent months in the detention facility with no access to legal representation. Raices is a fantastic organization that partners with pro bono attorneys from all across the country to try and satisfy the overwhelming need for legal help in South Texas.
As attorneys, we were subjected to intense security screening before we were allowed to enter the facility. We arrived on site at promptly 8 a.m. to make the most of our limited time with our clients. However, upon arrival, we learned that there was a "no re-entry" policy at the center. If attorneys wanted to leave for lunch, they weren't allowed back in to continue working and interviewing clients in the afternoon. We had limited time in Texas, and had to sacrifice our own comfort for the good of our clients. We weren't allowed to bring food in to the facility, so my brave comrades and I endured up to 14 hour days with nothing to eat as we vigorously interviewed clients and drafted supporting documents for their cases. When we needed to use the restroom, we were forced to use a single stall toilet with no lock on the door -- even attorneys had no privacy. Additionally, our bags were inspected for anything that may be construed as a gift for the detainees. We had hoped to take the children toys, crayons, etc, but were prevented from bringing anything other than legal necessities. The best I could do for the children I interacted with was give them my set of colored pens to draw on legal pads.
While at Karnes, we learned about the horrific "hileras" ("icebox" in Spanish), which are Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) holding cells for immigrants caught crossing the border before they are transferred to an ICE detention center. Immigrants sometimes spend days in hileras before they are processed out. The hileras are single room cells where immigrants and their children have no privacy, and are kept so cold (around 50 degrees) that babies and children turn purple. We heard stories of mothers separated from newborn babies who needed medical care at a hospital in San Antonio; the mothers weren't allowed to accompany their children, and were forced to sit and wait in Karnes, anxiously wondering what was going on. We heard stories of women who attempted suicide, because the stress of staying in a detention center, combined with the hopelessness they felt, was too much to bear. With a choice between voluntarily returning to a country where they would almost certainly be killed, or remaining in immigration prison indefinitely, they were in despair.
The women and children we met at Karnes suffered unthinkable harm in their home countries: rape, extreme domestic violence, and gang violence are rampant in Central America. One of our clients had smuggled out a video of her relative's brutal murder on a SD card, which was taken into evidence and placed in a locker she was unable to access at Karnes. Many women fled because their children were subjected to forced recruitment into the drug cartels. If these women and children had suffered this way in any other country in the world, they would be designated as refugees. Incarcerating them is not only inhumane; it is a national embarrassment.
In 2009, Congress appropriated a line into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Budget that has become known as the "detention quota". This line item mandates that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a sub-agency within DHS, fill over 33,000 beds each night in immigration detention facilities nationwide. That number has since increased to over 34,000. ICE currently lists 112 detention centers on their website, with plans to construct more nationwide. Over 60% of these centers are privately managed. These facilities include places like Karnes, which houses immigrants caught attempting to cross the border, and also places like Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, which houses immigrants awaiting a court hearing or removal from the United States after living here for a while.
Prisons are funded by taxpayer dollars. The difference between government run and private prisons, though, is that private prisons make a profit off of the government and those incarcerated. According to the numbers from 2013 (which are the latest available), the average cost per day of adult immigration detention was $124. For a family, that number was $343. So, if there is a mandated quota of 34,000 beds that must be filled, multiplied by even just $100 a day, the United States government is spending over 3.4 million dollars on immigrant detention daily.
There are two private corporations that own the majority of these detention facilities: CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group. GEO Group is currently involved in a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit in which inmates at the Aurora, Colorado detention center allege that they were forced to work at the facility for no wages in violation of federal anti-trafficking laws.
GEO Group and CoreCivic are raking in the cash. The US government is paying them millions of dollars a day to house immigrants, and these corporations want to keep it that way. Both companies spend millions of dollars a year lobbying Congress. In 2014, CoreCivic alone comprised 61% of the total federal prison lobby, and these resources were directed at DHS for immigration detention.
Detention in the Trump Era
At the time we worked at Karnes, our team was appalled that the Obama administration was not only allowing such a barbaric practice as family detention to not only exist, but to grow. Now, though, in a Trump presidency, immigrant detention is likely to expand exponentially. As I've discussed in previous blog posts, President Trump has done away with the Obama-era "priority" system and now intends to enforce deportation orders against any undocumented person, regardless of his or her criminal record.
Stocks for the two major private prison companies have surged since November, as investors see the potential for expansion of immigrant detention. It is expected that men, women, and children who have lived in the United States for significant periods of time will be detained in the coming months due to the change in immigration policy under President Trump. Additionally, families caught at the border are less likely to be released on their own recognizance to appear in court at a later date, and will be held pending a hearing for months or years. This just means that more detention facilities will be built, and more federal tax dollars will be spent lining the pockets of GEO Group and CoreCivic executives.
Beyond the economic impact of immigrant detention on the American taxpayer, it should be obvious by the end of this blog post that there is an enormous human cost as well. It is not only emotionally and psychologically difficult for immigrants and their families to survive in immigration detention, it can also affect the outcome of their cases. As I learned at Karnes, immigrants in detention have limited and sometimes no access to attorneys, and immigrants without representation are much less likely to succeed in front of an immigration judge.
Immigration detention is a horrific practice, and private corporations are profiting off of families fleeing extreme violence and poverty, as well as your friends and neighbors who are just trying to make a better life in America. If you're interested in learning more or getting involved, I've linked some great resources below. Or, as always, feel free to contact my office.
- Grassroots Leadership, a civil and human rights organization based in Austin, Texas dedicated to ending prison profiteering
- The ACLU reports on immigration detention and strives to protect the rights of incarcerated immigrants
- The American Immigration Council is a non-profit that promotes fair and equal immigration law and policy
- The Detention Watch Network is a nationwide organization that advocates for change in immigration detention