Texas advocates throw cold water on ICE’s promises to ‘fix family detention’

May 14, 2015

Federal officials say they’ll try harder ahead of a legal decision that many think is likely to dismantle the policy of detaining refugee families

(Austin, TEXAS) — Texas immigration advocates and attorneys today derided an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s announcement that it will “enhance oversight” at the notorious detention camps in Texas and Pennsylvania for asylum-seeking families.

Since last summer, momentum has been building to end the detention of immigrant mothers and children in secure facilities in Karnes City, Texas; Dilley, Texas; and Berks County, Pennsylvania. In July 2014 more than 100 faith, immigrant rights, and civil rights and civil liberties organizations sent a letter calling on Homeland Security officials to reconsider plans to put families and children into prison-like detention centers. On May 2, more than 500 people shut down Texas Highway 85 as they marched to the Dilley, Texas family detention camp to protest the policy of locking up refugee women and children and call for the closure of all family detention camps. Most recently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on May 11, calling for a transformation of the immigrant detention system, including an end the use of detention for vulnerable groups including families and asylum seekers.  The Bishops statement followed an outpouring of opposition to family detention from many faith organizations.

Important strides have been made on the legal front as well. Most recently, at the end of April 2015, a federal judge issued a preliminary decision to enforce the 1997 Flores settlement, which set standards for the care of children in INS custody. The 1997 settlement states clearly that children must be held in open, licensed childcare facilities and have the right to released first to their parents. Many observers believe that if the Flores settlement were fully enforced, it would dismantle the entire system of immigrant family detention in secure facilities operated by for-profit prison corporations. Parties are currently in the process of negotiating a settlement based on the judge’s preliminary decision and a final negotiation is scheduled for the end of this month.

Advocates in Texas roundly rejected the notion that the family detention camps can be improved and instead reiterated their call for the immediate closure of the for-profit facilities in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas as well as the one in Berk County, Pennsylvania.

“While families and little children suffer in these detention camps, private prison corporations are profiting from every bed and every crib,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership in Austin.  “Family detention cannot be ‘fixed.’ The only fix is to end the policy of locking up families and children, to close the detention camps permanently, and to never again return to this shameful policy.”

Texans United for Families, the community group that organized the massive protest in Dilley, Texas on May 2, remains committed to seeing family detention ended for good.

“All detention is immoral and should be illegal. Perhaps seeing children held against their will, prohibited from leaving an enclosed facility, is the most glaring and sobering form of this imprisonment. “Enhancing oversight” is the equivalent of condoning the existence of detention centers and reveals a focus on the wrong issues,” said Rakhi Agrawal, Texans United for Families member.  

Astrid Dominguez, Advocacy Coordinator of the ACLU of Texas said, "The fact remains that detaining vulnerable children and their mothers in federal detention centers is simply wrong and inhumane. These are women and children who are fleeing unspeakable violence and trauma, yet we continue to lock them up despite clear evidence that jail conditions profoundly harm children and all survivors of violence. The only right thing for the government to do is close these facilities and invest in the far less costly alternatives that exist.”

Attorneys who have seen the conditions in family detention first hand for many months, joined advocates in their assertions that detention cannot be made more palatable with tweaks of administrative policy. They too, say that closing the camps is the only answer.

“Locking up refugee children is immoral, unconscionable, unconstitutional, and unwise.  Every credible psychologist, social worker, and social science researcher knows that detention causes severe damage to children, damage that is long-lasting and likely permanent.  You cannot "fix" family detention; you cannot make it pretty or nice or tolerable.  Family detention must end,” said Virginia Raymond, an Austin-based attorney who has been representing several families at Karnes.

Professor Barbara Hines, attorney, retired law professor and the former director of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law Immigration Clinic, added, "Now that ICE has abandoned its ill-thought and illegal use of deterrence as a pretext to lock up mothers and children, it should release families immediately as there is no reason to detain asylum seekers. ICE's press release is merely a post-hoc litigation stance in light of the Flores litigation.  Nothing in their press release would put ICE in compliance with the requirements of the Flores settlement that requires that children be held in nonsecure, state-licensed facilities and that they be released as quickly as possible. ICE facilities are not safe and humane.  In fact, it is clear based on my experience at the Karnes detention center and the abuses that have occurred there, that there is no humane or moral way to lock up families in for-profit detention facilities. ICE has ignored stakeholders before and during the almost one year of this shameful practice of locking up families. I do not think that ICE is sincerely interested in engaging with advocates to end family detention."

A group of women who have been on multiple hunger strikes inside Karnes to protest their lengthy detention sent a letter to President Obama early this week where they explained why detention itself is so harmful to them and their young children.

“We have cases of reasonable or credible fear. We do not feel that we are in conditions to be able to do our final case hearings while we are locked up because we are in poor mental health. We suffer from constant headaches, we can’t sleep for thinking about so many problems. For these reasons, many mothers loose [sic] when they go to their final hearing with the judge. Our children don’t eat, they don’t want to go to school, and they feel bad when they see hundreds of families come and go from this detention center. What worries us the most is that the [sic] say that they are going to throw themselves off the top of the building because they won’t let us leave. Other adolescents say that they prefer to tie a sheet around their necks and kill themselves because they no longer want to be detained here. We come fleeing from violence in our home countries, seeking refuge and protection here, but we never thought that they were going to treat us like this. We have been despised, humiliated, deceived, and rejected,” they wrote.



Contact: Cristina Parker, cparker@grassrootsleadership.org, 512-499-8111