Tonight: Protest at Karnes Civil Detention Center

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Protesters outside Karnes County Civil Detention Center on opening day, 2012. Photo by Lily Casura.

Protesters outside Karnes County Civil Detention Center on opening day, 2012. Photo by Lily Casura.

Local activists will gather for a vigil Thursday evening at the Karnes County Civil Detention Center to protest what they say is the poor treatment of immigrant women and children at the facility. The protest coincides with a visit from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldaña. The vigil is planned for 7-9 p.m. in front of the family detention center, an hour drive from San Antonio.

The 608-bed facility opened in March 2012 in the middle of the Texas countryside at 409 FM 1144, Karnes City. The center was built by the private prison developer GEO Group in a joint agreement with ICE and Karnes County. The GEO Group is paid on a per-diem basis to house the detainees. At the time, it was billed as a “kinder, gentler immigrant jail” intending to house male detainees only.

Journalists who toured the facility on opening day, including this reporter, noticed how unlike a prison it seemed – no barbed wire, no observation towers, spiffy recreational facilities, medical and dental facilities. There was somewhat of a subdued college dormitory feel to the place, which includes a full-service courtroom for the immigrant detainees, separated from their families. But the nearest city where legal aid lawyers could represent the detainees on a pro-bono basis, however, was San Antonio, a more than 60-mile drive away. Austin is even further.

Over the past few years the mission of the facility has changed to house women and children as a “family detention center,” one of the few in the country. A second, larger facility is being built in Dilley, and there are plans to expand Karnes to house even more immigrant families.

A surge of violence in Central America has created an influx of refugees from countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Immigrants flee and attempt to enter the U.S. illegally either as families, partial families or as “unaccompanied minors.” Children as young as 8 or 10 years old travel by themselves, sometimes intending to reunite with family members already in the U.S. When these immigrants are apprehended at the Mexican border, they are taken to facilities like Karnes to await disposition.

A report published this month by the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. notes the influx of immigrants traveling as unaccompanied minors and as families from Central America increased by 90% between 2013 and 2014, peaking at 137,000.

The New York Times magazine in February focused its attention on the problem in an article “The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps,” which put the urgency of this migration in context: “For the first time, more people are coming to the United States from those countries than from Mexico, and they are coming not just for opportunity but for survival.”

Here in the San Antonio area, the need for legal representation of unaccompanied minors has created a strain on legal services. Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Legal Services (RAICES), said in a YouTube video that these children’s cases are heard as civil and not criminal matters, so they aren’t provided with public defenders. RAICES tries to educate these children about their legal rights, and in just a few years their caseload has exploded. To keep up with this growth, they’ve gone from four attorneys to 40 from 2008 to 2014.

The steady increase of children's cases for RAICES. Graph by Lily Casura.

The steady increase of children’s cases for RAICES. Graph by Lily Casura.

Along with the shift from male to female detainees, with or without children, the facility at Karnes has changed its name to “Karnes County Residential Center,” and with the population shift came allegations of verbal, sexual and emotional abuse by female detainees.

A series of articles in the Texas Observer have detailed the allegations and increased scrutiny of the facility. Austin immigration attorney Virginia Raymond’s paralegal, Victoria Rossi, wrote about what she saw at Karnes for the Observer in this article, and then was promptly banned by the facility, as described here.

During the past few weeks, a number of the female detainees have started a hunger strike to protest their treatment at the facility and the lack of progress in their cases. When I reported on the opening of Karnes in 2012, the estimated stay for detainees was supposed to be 30 days. Today, many of the women have been there for much longer – multiple months, approaching years.

MSNBC reported that some of the women hunger strikers experienced retaliation for their complaints, and officials produced a fairly stock response without addressing the complaints specifically. The ICE director’s visit this week may be an attempt to quell public concern, though there isn’t much friction with the facility in the depressed town of Karnes, where residents typically see the jobs created at the detention center as a boon, according to the Texas Observer.

In the meantime, a loose coalition of local activists are planning a drive to Karnes City tonight to take part in a vigil to support 10 female detainees who are continuing a partial fast during the ICE director’s visit. If you want to join them, the directions are to leave San Antonio around 6 p.m. to make the 60-minute drive to Karnes City.

From San Antonio, travel south on I-37, exit 181 toward Floresville. Go through Floresville, Poth, and Hobson. When you get to the entrance of Karnes City, take a right on FM 1144. The Detention Center is 1/3 mile from that corner.

“We will be in front on the road,” said organizer Rebecca Flores.

For more information, call Flores at (210) 842-9502, or email her at

The drive from San Antonio to Karnes County Civil Detention Center is about 45 min. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

The drive from San Antonio to Karnes County Civil Detention Center is about one hour. Image courtesy of Google Maps.


*Featured/top image: No barbed wire, no tower outside Karnes County Civil Detention Center. Photo by Lily Casura.

Related Stories:

Exploring Deferred Action for Immigrant Children and Parents in San Antonio

San Antonio: Bridge City to Mexico

Commentary: Immigrants are People, Not Political Pawns

Elvira Cisneros, 1924-2014: An Immigrant’s Legacy of Service

Reflection of a DREAMer, Embracing Her Uncertain Future

4 thoughts on “Tonight: Protest at Karnes Civil Detention Center

  1. Another KidMO.

    This injustice never goes away. There is just too much $$$ involved and too many private prison corporations with their snouts in the trough sucking up those federal dollars.

    Prisons are one of those things that should never have been privatized, along with all the mercenary corporations providing high dollar “security” in our not war zones, but yet war zones overseas, toll roads, municipal utility services, etc.

    It was almost 10 years ago that Texas activists discovered children being kept behind bars at Hutto prison just North West of Austin in Taylor, Texas. The feds were paying about $180 per day to CCA per child. Some of these kids were born in the states and US citizens. Didn’t matter. Money to be made, you know. Housing those kids in cells made four to five times the bank criminals bring in.

    We protested the hell out of T Don Hutto for months, bringing people by the bus load from San Antonio. Finally they moved the kids out to make us go away. And that is the game they play. Once protesters get traction and media attention, they shuffle the prisoners and pretend the problem is solved.

    All these years later and nothing has changed.

    “Es el mismo perro con diferente collar (same dog, different collar)” – Antonio Diaz, current candidate for D2 city council seat & stalwart at the T Don Hutto baby prison protest lines

  2. Thanks for providing some of the local history! When I reported on the opening of the detention center for AFP, the ICE authority who spoke referred to it costing “$122 a day to detain an immigration violator.” I have since learned that there is something like a quota system in place in at least some places where privatized prisons are doing a deal with the state or federal government. Yes, they’re providing the money to build the facility, but in return they expect it to be filled to X capacity, or the government will be fined daily for running under capacity. This certainly incentivizes (no idea how to spell that word) imprisonment. I didn’t put that in the story because it was beyond the scope/length, but it is concerning.

    There’s also a terrible story to be told about “deported veterans” — people who served honorably in the U.S. armed forces, but are deported after a minor infraction (e.g., marijuana possession, vandalism, etc.) Judges have no discretion because of the way the law is written, so even if they’re sympathetic to the veteran’s cause, he or she is still deported. There are many in this situation from every era living in abject poverty right across the border. I became aware of this situation years ago after befriending some of the people this was happening to, and was gratified to see a comprehensive story written on this later:

  3. Yup. Kidmos are a long standing problem in these parts.

    The old myspace is still up and has photos. San Antonio Indigenous Council, LULAC, Code Pink, SA Brown Berets, and all sorts banded together for the monthly protests. We had live music, multiple bull horns, guest speakers. Amnesty International sponsored one rally. A very talented young rap artist recorded a song for us. A movie was even made about Hutto baby prison.

    Had great signs – “Toddlers are not Terrorists” and “No Child Left Behind Bars” were favorite creations. Catchy t-shirts, buttons and hats.

    But yeah. As soon as the conventional media started paying attention, the feds packed those kids up and moved them out of state.

    It is hard for the little people to force change.

    The Rivard Report didn’t exist back then, but the Current was great about sending reporters out. Thank you for taking notice of the problem.

    In case you want to check it out:

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