On May 27, a majority of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives – including Rep. Joaquín Castro – signed and sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson calling for an end to family detention in "jail-like" immigrant incarceration centers in South Texas.
Eight of those 136 House Democrats had what Castro called an "emotional visit" Monday to one such facility, the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City. The delegation of Democrats will visit the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley on Tuesday.
"Because there were so many women, we broke down into small groups and we each interviewed a number of women," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) after the tour. "When we went out into the common area we were just swarmed with women and children, some of them crying, wanting to tell their stories."
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and many mothers and children fled violence and abuse in their Central American home nations and made their way across the Mexico-U.S. border into Texas. The flow of immigrants without legal documentation to enter the country has since slowed to a trickle, but the immigration and justice system proved unable to cope with the mass asylum applications.
Since then, the issue of detaining women and children for extended periods of time has come under fire. The families are housed in barracks-like buildings that are fenced like prison camps and guarded and there are numerous reports of adult women being subjected to solitary confinement and separation from their children, kept in rooms purposely kept uncomfortably cold, and otherwise punished for not adhering to detention center rules.
Reporters were not permitted to accompany the Congressional delegation into the detention camps.
Many women who spoke with the officeholders relayed heart-wrenching tales of solitary confinement and worry for their children's safety and psychological health – further solidifying the delegation's stance that there is no such thing as a 'good' jail" for children and families, Lofgren said.
"Residential center" is the euphemism recently adopted by private prison operators and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that contracts with such companies to manage the facilities that hold immigrant mothers and children awaiting resolution of their claims to asylum.
Until last year, Karnes City's center was called Karnes County Civil Detention Center when it housed men caught crossing the border. The Florida-based prison management contractor GEO Group was hired by the county to manage day-to-day operations at the family residential center. ICE has hired Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America to oversee management of its Dilley facility that, in turn, is operated by subcontractors.
The rise of family "detention camps" came as the DHS' response to the 2014 influx of people looking for asylum in the U.S. from Central America, Castro said.
"When we think of refugees, we often think of folks seeking political asylum. We think of people who are fleeing Communism. ... But in the world today, people also flee very desperate situations brought on, for example, by violent drug lords who rule over a country."
These women are often fleeing communities where crime, violence, murder, and rape are everyday concerns, he added. The tour was about meeting with the detained families, Castro said, because "we have a responsibility in the United States Congress, when we have the ability, to go see for yourself first-hand what's going on."
Detainees are called "residents." Guards are "resident advisors." Despite such shifts in vocabulary and the presence of some amenities, such as toys and school and pre-school room interiors, the delegation's letter cites compelling research by Dr. Luis Zayas, the dean of Social Work at the University of Texas, who interviewed families at Karnes were children are "facing some of the most adverse childhood conditions of any children I have ever interviewed or evaluated."
Castro and Lofgren were joined by Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (MD-05), Rep. Judy Chu (CA-27), Rep. Raúl Grijalva (AZ-03), Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (IL-04), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-40). Representatives Roybal-Allard, Lofgren, and Gutiérrez were the driving forces behind authoring and gathering support for the letter. Click here to download.
"It's not about what colors you paint the rooms, how many nurses you have or dentists and doctors – or what the food tastes like, " Gutiérrez said. "They could make this the most nicest, most beautiful place in the world. It's still a jail. Those children are still suffering irreparable harm."
While the facility isn't meant to be disciplinary, there have been accusations that solitary confinement has been used and the very structured, secured nature of the facility implies punishment.
"They came clean (to escape crime) and then we treat them as though they are criminals. That's wrong," he said, citing that U.S. asylum laws allow for people to come to the country for sanctuary.
The letter came just two weeks after ICE announced some operational reforms relating to family detention, while also confirming that the centers will not be closed.
“While we routinely review and evaluate our facilities to ensure that we are providing the level of care required by our Family Residential Standards, we understand the unique and sensitive nature of detaining families and we are committed to maintaining the optimal level of care. The measures ICE is announcing reaffirm that understanding and our commitment to ensuring all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure, and humane manner,” stated ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña in a news release.
That falls short of the expectations of the 136 Democrats that signed the response letter. “The recent announcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on family detention does not acknowledge that detention, even for a brief period of time, especially in a secure setting, is detrimental to child development,” the letter states.
The delegation recognizes that some legal processing is required to manage the women and children arriving without documentation into the country – but reports of women and their children staying in such facilities for a year is beyond "processing," it's imprisonment, Gutiérrez said.
"We're not saying that every mom who is in that jail camp should get political asylum," Lofgren said. "That's for a judge to decide. What we are saying is they've committed no crime, their cases should be heard in an orderly manner, and there is no way we should choose the most expensive possible alternative for them while their (cases are being processed)."
The delegation suggests several alternatives to detainment while a backlog of asylum cases remain pending, which they said cost taxpayers $127,000 per person per year, including ankle monitors, housing placement, and case management through local nonprofits and community volunteerism.
"The citizens of San Antonio would tomorrow open up their homes to these families and allow them to be here with love and respect and with dignity while they await their court (date)," Gutiérrez said, citing the numerous religious, advocacy, and nonprofit groups that have already come forward to help the refugees. "We're making too little of our nation. Americans are a great people. Give them an opportunity and they'll step up."
Another question that arose for Arizona Rep. Grijalva during his visit is how the private contracts with these prisons might be affecting policy. Accusations of the private companies implementing quotas for how many detainees – or residents – the centers housed were brought up.
"If the decision is being made by Homeland Security as to who goes in and who gets out of detention and the for-profit prison is only a receptor, then obviously (how to fix it is) an easy decision," Rep. Grijalva said. "But if indeed – and I think we have to dig into (this) – if the private prison industry is driving the policy of who gets in and who gets out (through a quota) then I think we have a substantive issue."
*Featured/top image: From left: Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard, Zoe Lofgren, Joaquín Castro, and Luis Gutiérrez address media after a tour of the Karnes County Residential Center. Photo by Iris Dimmick.