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.

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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 rebbeccoflores@gmail.com.

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.

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Lily Casura

Lily Casura

Lily Casura, MSW, is the Director of Equity and Impact at YWCA San Antonio. An independent researcher as well as a current graduate student in applied demography at UTSA, she co-authored the "Status of...