Families: The Migra’s Latest Target – by Eileen Truax (El Universal)

~ This article was originally published by El Universal on October 27, 2014 ~


– Arguing that they don’t want to split up families, migrant parents and children are held in US detention centers awaiting word on their fate

Los Angeles, California. – In the middle of the New Mexican desert, in the remote town of Artesia, the US government has incarcerated hundreds of migrant children and women. Their only crime is having crossed the border without documents.

Even though in previous months attention has centered on unaccompanied migrant children arriving in the United States, there is another group of minors that crosses with one or both of their parents. These children are different from the ones traveling alone who are swiftly transferred to shelters or placed in family environments. Instead, Barack Obama’s administration has chosen to lock up those children arriving with their families while they receive judgments from the immigration courts. That process can take months.

Between June and August of this year, the number of migrant family members under detention in the United States grew by 1,100 per cent, rising from 100 to 1,200 in this time period, according to a report from the organization Detention Watch Network.

The new detainees were taken first to Artesia and then to a similar detention center in Karnes County, Texas. Projections for the end of 2014, which include the construction of the third of these detention centers – immigration officials euphemistically refer to them as “residential centers” – also in Texas, will exceed 3,500 beds for family members, including children.

In the report, For-Profit Family Detention, published a few days ago, the activist organization against incarceration as a private business, Grassroots Leadership, concludes that with the establishment of these centers “President [Barack] Obama has initiated family detention as part of a project that is bigger than concentration camps for Japanese [during World War Two].”

Families Together

The Family Residential Center in Artesia is located three and a half hours from El Paso, the closest urban center. It’s far from legal and social aid services for those housed there: families that arrived in the US this summer, fleeing violence in Central America. The United States maintains the largest migrant detention center infrastructure in the world.

During fiscal year 2012 – from October 2011 to September 2012 – the United States reached a milestone: 478,000 individuals in detention while awaiting the outcome of their legal proceedings. Most of those detained do not have a ruling from an immigration judge. While they await a judgment, they are not freed.

According to their budget for expenditure during fiscal year 2015, beginning last 1 October and ending 30 September 2015, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will spend a total of US$1.3 billion operating migrant detention centers with a total of 30,539 beds, a figure only slightly lower than that of last year. However, the US Senate’s Appropriations Committee approved an additional US$28 million for the new family detention centers.

In the document, one of the sections titled, “Development of New Installations” notes that in March 2012 ICE opened the Civil Detention Center in Karnes County, making it “one of the first installations designed and constructed on the basis of ICE’s reformed principles of detention.” The buildings, it adds, sport “innovative designs and cost benefits, new types of construction materials, people and operations management, greater freedom of movement, contact visits and physical and mental health services.”

The detention center for Karnes County, eighty kilometers southeast of San Antonio, originally opened to house adult men. After the private detention center’s remodeling during this summer, as part of the expansion of these “residential centers” it will now house 530 individuals, all families with children. GEO Group runs this center, the second largest corporation housing detained migrants.

“ICE operates these residential centers for adults with children to keep families together while they wait for the response of the immigration courts or while they are awaiting return to their countries of origin,” announces the press release about Karnes’s opening. “ICE wants to confirm that these residential centers operate in an open atmosphere, including medical attention, play rooms, social workers, education services and access to legal assistance.”

However, civil rights organizations that follow the operations of private detention centers – and who openly use the term “imprisonment” in place of the word “detention” used by ICE – warn about the risks of their committing human rights violations in the interest of their operators’ margins of cost-benefit.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership based in Texas, responded to the ICE announcement confirming that “while there are families suffering massive detention politics, the business has been very convenient for corporations like GEO.”

In a previously published report, “GEO Group noted that it was hoping to obtain profits of 15 million dollars per year for operating the Karnes detention center,” explains Carl Takei, lawyer for the National Prisons Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the country’s most important human rights organizations. “After ICE awarded it the contract to convert it into a family detention center, they reported a raise in the expected profit to US$26 million, eleven million more than the original estimate.”

Takei confirms that the Obama Administration knows about the risk of being denounced by non-governmental organizations. In its first year in office, the president had to confront one of his most important battles led and won by the ACLU: the case of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center.

Expansion and business

The Hutto Center, at the time operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the principal provider of private detention services for immigrants in the United States, was closed in 2009 amidst intense pressure over two years from the public and organizations that complained about and proved human rights violations of children housed with their parents.

After Hutto’s closure, only one small center in Berks County, Pennsylvania operated in a similar way, with fewer than one hundred beds until past June. From that month until the present, growth has been exponential: families have been transferred to centers in Artesia, Karnes and in a few weeks to the most ambitious project of 2015: the opening of the Dilley, Texas detention center, operated as well by CCA.

On 22 September, through a press release, ICE reported that it plans to open a new residential center in Dilley, south Texas, to house families including children, “as a response to the flow of adults traveling with children and who are detained in the southeastern border.” It is hoped that it will open in December and, according to the press release, will be the fourth center used by DHS to increase its capacity for expedited detention and deportation of adults with children. The installation will begin operating at the beginning of November 2014, housing 480 residents, with the goal of being at its full capacity of 2,400 beds within 210 days.

Although it seemed as though the past experience with Hutto would have been sufficiently strong to stop the repetition of human rights abuses in immigration detention centers, within a week complaints from Artesia began: mothers separated from their children even though there is sufficient space to house them together; viable asylum cases for victims of violence that are not being taken to Court for lack of information; indigenous people in detention who were not given an interpreter even though one is required under the law, and extended periods of detention even though a judge ordered the detainee set free.

Activist groups’ concerns are growing because Artesia generates complaints in spite of being directly operated by ICE. In cases like the soon-to-open Dilley Residential Center, the risk of abuse is greater because the financial gain is also greater: US$298 for each person detained.

“The issue of family detention is nothing new for the Obama Administration; it’s not like they are saying ‘we are going to try this model’ because they have already tried it and they know that it does not work,” says Cristina Parker, coordinator of the Immigration Project for Grassroots Leadership. “Now they want Dilley to be operated by the same firm that operated Hutto in an abusive way. That doesn’t make any more sense than it did five years ago.”

Journalist Eileen Truax is based in Los Angeles, California and was born in Mexico City. You can follow her on Twitter @EileenTruax. Her first book, Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight for their American Dream, will be released in English translation by Beacon Press in March 2015 and is available in Spanish, here. She is a contributor to Cuadernos de la Doble Raya. This article, the first of two in a series of investigative chapter, appeared under the title, “Familias: Nuevo Blanco de la Migra,” available at: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion-mexico/2014/impreso/familias-nuevo-blanco-de-8216la-migra-8217-219732.html.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.



About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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