immigrant detention

Apr 14, 2017
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The Texas Tribune

Trump greenlights a new immigrant-detention center in Texas

A private-prison company that has for years been in the crosshairs of immigrant rights groups announced Thursday it will build a $110 million detention complex in the Houston metro area.

The Florida-based GEO Group said in a news release its new facility will be built in the city of Conroe as part of a 10-year, renewable contract with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The detention center will be finished toward the end of 2018, the company said. The Associated Press first reported the story.

Immigrant advocacy groups said the move signals the beginning of President Trump’s efforts to expand detentions and begin fast-tracking the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants in the country. Part of the president's Jan. 25 executive order on immigration instructed the Department of Homeland Security to increase bed space for undocumented immigrants subject to removal. 

“We’re not surprised, but we are deeply disappointed that the administration is not only lining the pockets of the private-prison industry but expanding detention,” said Bob Libal, the executive director for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based immigrant rights and private-prison watchdog group.

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The new facility will add to the GEO Group’s heavy presence in Texas. The company’s website lists more than a dozen facilities it operates in the state. They range from smaller local jails used mainly by the U.S. Marshals Service to larger immigration-detention complexes near the border.

GEO Group was involved in a lengthy legal battle last year after Grassroots Leadership filed a lawsuit to prevent the company’s Karnes City facility from being licensed as a child-care facility by state officials. The center houses hundreds of women and children that were part of the surge of undocumented immigrants from Central America who began arriving to Texas in record numbers four years ago.

The child-care facility licensing has been necessary since 2015, when U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered that immigrants held in Texas and elsewhere should be released because their detention violates the provisions of a 1997 settlement — the Flores v. Meese agreement — that requires undocumented juveniles be held in facilities that protect their health and safety.

A state district judge denied the state the ability to issue the licenses, but the facility continues to operate as a temporary processing center, Libal said. Read more about Trump greenlights a new immigrant-detention center in Texas

Apr 4, 2017
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Critics say lawmakers are trying to license 'little jails' to hold immigrant families

The state calls them family residential centers. Opponents have called them  “prisons for profit” and “little jails.”

On Wednesday, committees in both legislative chambers will address bills that would allow the Department of Family and Protective Services to license Texas facilities that house unauthorized mothers and children while they await their immigration hearings.

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In July 2015, a federal judge ruled that children can live in detention centers only if the centers are licensed by state child welfare agencies. Karnes and the South Texas facility, which is southwest of San Antonio, weren't licensed and faced closure.

To keep them from shuttering, in February 2016 the Department of Family and Protective Services gave itself the authority to license the facilities. Keeping them open helps the state deal with immigration control. But a state district court in December blocked Texas from issuing the licenses.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, author of the Senate bill, said in a meeting of the committee on Veteran Affairs and Border Security last week that his proposal was meant to address the court ruling. Lawmakers on the committee are expected to vote on the bill Wednesday, while members of the House State Affairs committee will hear testimony on an identical bill by Rep. John Raney, R-College Station.

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Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, which brought the suit that halted the licensing of the centers, said immigrants have in the past been released to family members in the country after being issued notices to appear in court for their immigration hearings.

Most of these families are asylum seekers, Libal said, so they're not flight risks because there's an incentive for them to return to court and keep in contact with immigration officials. He said that family residential centers are not the only option and that his group would oppose the legislation to license them.

“There’s a whole range [of alternatives] that are less harsh than detaining families,” he said. Read more about Critics say lawmakers are trying to license 'little jails' to hold immigrant families

Apr 3, 2017
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The Austin American-Statesmen

ICE officials: 24 in Austin-Waco arrested in new immigration sweep

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents say they arrested 153 people in Texas suspected of being in the country illegally — including 24 people picked up in the Austin-Waco area — as part of the second enforcement operation immigration officials have confirmed in the state this year.

The 12-day operation, which lasted from March 20 to March 31, differed in execution and results from another one performed in the area during the second week of February.

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ICE officials also said all of the people arrested in last month’s operation had previous criminal convictions, as opposed to the February raid. Federal documents obtained by the American-Statesman showed 28 of the 51 people arrested in February were deemed “non-criminals,” or people with no previous criminal convictions but suspected of living in the country illegally.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin said in open court last month that ICE agents alerted him and another federal judge about the February raid, which they said was retribution for the new Travis County sheriff’s policy limiting the jail’s cooperation with immigration officials, the Statesman reported last month.

ICE officials declined Friday to comment further on the arrests, but in a news release, Daniel Bible, field office director for enforcement and removal operations in San Antonio, said: “ICE’s primary immigration enforcement efforts target convicted criminal aliens. … Consequently, our operations improve overall public safety by removing these criminals from our streets, and ultimately from our country.”

Local activists criticized the new operation.

“I think this continues a trend of ICE instilling fear in our community and … arresting more people in our community,” said Bob Libal, with the Austin-based immigration support network Grassroots Leadership. Read more about ICE officials: 24 in Austin-Waco arrested in new immigration sweep

Mar 31, 2017
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Lexington Herald Leader

Empty jails hope to cash in on illegal immigration crackdown

Several Texas counties that are struggling with debt because their jails have few or no prisoners hope to refill those cellblocks with a different kind of inmate: immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

The debt dates back to the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, when some rural counties were losing employment prospects and population. To bring jobs and money, they built correctional centers with hundreds and sometimes more than a thousand beds that could be used to house inmates from other counties as well as prisoners for the state and federal governments.

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Jails and private prisons across the country are weighing their options after the Department of Homeland Security announced in January that it was shopping for more jail space as part of its efforts to secure the border.

In some places, the situation is the reverse of Texas, with public prisons full and states paying for extra beds. A private prison operator that had been housing 250 inmates for Vermont recently dropped the state as a client because the federal government will probably offer more for the same space.

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Three vacant Texas detention centers have been sold to private prison companies in the last few weeks, according to county officials and records filed with the national Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board.

Some of the jails require updating to meet U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement standards, but the existing facilities could put Texas at an advantage compared with other states where the companies would have to spend months building detention space.

Meanwhile, the traditional inmate-holding business is still declining. A proposed budget from the Texas Senate would end state contracts with four facilities, including three that are privately run, making it more important for those companies to get immigrant contracts to stay profitable.

ICE would not discuss how many beds the agency might need or its timetable for obtaining them. Agency spokesman Carl Rusnok declined to discuss any negotiations, citing the confidentiality of the federal contracting process.

At least one advocacy group is wary of the secretive process and of putting more detainees in privately run facilities after complaints and violations of inmate-care standards.

"If this is the plan to expand to the bottom of the barrel in detention centers, that should raise huge red flags for people concerned about immigrants' well-being and rights," said Bob Libal, executive director of Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, which seeks immigration and detention reform. Read more about Empty jails hope to cash in on illegal immigration crackdown

Mar 28, 2017
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The Brownsville Herald

Use of ankle monitors for immigrants on rise

Twelve years ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiated the use of ankle monitors on immigrants. After the large influx of Central American asylum seekers in 2014, the use increased dramatically.

According to authorities, close to 70,000 Central American refugees arrived at the U.S. border in 2014. Many were incarcerated in South Texas detention centers, while others were offered the option of wearing an ankle monitor as a condition of being released.

Within one year, approximately 23,000 immigrants were being monitored by that method. That number climbed to 60,000 in 2016.

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According to ICE, the ankle devices are an efficient way to make certain that immigrants show up for their court dates without having to detain them.

ICE reported that during the past two years, 99 percent of monitored immigrants have appeared at their hearings. ICE also says that compared to detention, the monitors are far less expensive to operate and maintain.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based group that opposes private prisons, says ankle monitors don’t address the underlying problem.

“On a systems level, it’s not accomplishing the goal of reducing the number of people in detention, or making our immigration system a more humane one,” he said.

Because many immigrants are held for months before being released with the ankle monitors, the devices aren’t fulfilling their goal as alternatives to detention. In October 2016, the number of detainees skyrocketed to a record high of 42,000.

BI Inc., a privately owned company, has a five-year contract with ICE to run the federal government’s program for alternatives to detention. BI Inc. is owned by parent company GEO Group, a private prison company that runs numerous detention centers. Read more about Use of ankle monitors for immigrants on rise

Mar 19, 2017
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The Bryan-College Station Eagle

Bryan-College Station spiritual leaders back immigrants

Muslim, Christian and Jewish spiritual leaders from across Bryan-College Station are putting aside doctrinal differences and focusing on scriptural similarities to determine how they can best join forces to support immigrant and refugee communities during a period of anxiety and uncertainty.

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Since taking office, President Donald Trump has issued orders instructing the Department of Homeland Security to hire 15,000 Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol agents and broadening the parameters of prioritization of forced removal to include more immigrants. Trump's policies have left many immigrants across the country -- including some in Bryan-College Station -- afraid to leave their homes.

Spiritual leaders throughout Bryan-College Station have stepped in to assuage some of their concerns; De Leon estimated that between 15-20 clergy members have been meeting with the Brazos Interfaith Immigration Network, or BIIN, for the past several months to determine how to work together to advocate for immigrant and refugee communities. 

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De Leon laid out a number of explicit actions he said his church could do to support immigrant and refugee communities across Bryan-College Station.

"When we think of being a sanctuary church, our minds go to an open-door church where immigrants are housed," said De Leon. But being supportive of the sanctuary movement, he added, could involve "meeting people where they are versus harboring undocumented immigrants."

Among the options are visiting immigrants being held in detention centers, helping to find legal counsel for the detained, holding fundraisers to pay lawyers to help those about to be deported in getting their affairs in order and getting trained to participate in Sanctuary in the Streets, a four-hour class taught by the Austin-based Grassroots Leadership. Sanctuary in the Streets teaches supporters to be witnesses to ICE raids by live-streaming arrests using cell phones and engaging in direct-action protests in response to immigration raids.

Alejandro Caceres, a representative from Grassroots Leadership, said that 250 people had been certified through the training in the Austin/Central Texas area. About six are certified in B-CS.

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None of the houses of worship in this article have formally become part of the sanctuary movement, though Friends Congregational Church will have a congregational discussion and vote today on whether and how to pledge support to the sanctuary movement. Read more about Bryan-College Station spiritual leaders back immigrants

Mar 11, 2017
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Austin American-Statesman

130 miles from Austin, immigration court decides the fate of thousands

A Central Texas welder named Jorge Lozada-Castillo sat in a small courtroom holding headphones to his ears as he listened to the Spanish translation of a judge’s decision.

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The entire proceeding took about 10 minutes, and, by the time it ended, Lozada-Castillo had agreed to leave the country of his own accord by Tuesday or face forced deportation.

This small 20-by-30-foot courtroom, set behind two locked steel doors inside an immigrant detention center in Pearsall, 45 miles southwest of San Antonio, is on the front line of the Justice Department’s efforts to deport each year more than 250,000 people living in the U.S. illegally. Lozada-Castillo’s hearing was just one of thousands that happen every week, many of which occur outside of the public’s view in detention centers across the nation.

And with stepped-up enforcement expected under President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration violations, Central Texas and the rest of the state will likely see an increase in activity by immigration and Border Patrol officers.

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Immigrants who go before the court aren’t guaranteed a lawyer, unlike citizens and immigrants in criminal court. Yang, a staff attorney for American Gateways, said she believes a large majority of people who come before the court aren’t represented by lawyers.


 

Highlights

A court in Pearsall, 130 miles south of Austin, decides whether to deport thousands of immigrants each year.

The court is housed at a detention center that holds most immigrants detained in the Austin-San Antonio area.

Most people who go before the court show up without an attorney and are deported, data shows.

PEARSALL —

A Central Texas welder named Jorge Lozada-Castillo sat in a small courtroom holding headphones to his ears as he listened to the Spanish translation of a judge’s decision.

No, the judge decided, he wouldn’t be granted bail. Lozada-Castillo’s two convictions for driving while intoxicated made him a danger to the public and a flight risk.

No, he wouldn’t be allowed a last-ditch chance to formally wed his common-law wife, a Lockhart woman who is the mother of his 5-year-old autistic son. He would be sent back to Mexico, despite the hardship it would cause his family.

“I’m sorry to hear about your son, but that is not going to affect my decision,” said Judge R. Reid McKee in the hearing late last month.

The entire proceeding took about 10 minutes, and, by the time it ended, Lozada-Castillo had agreed to leave the country of his own accord by Tuesday or face forced deportation.

This small 20-by-30-foot courtroom, set behind two locked steel doors inside an immigrant detention center in Pearsall, 45 miles southwest of San Antonio, is on the front line of the Justice Department’s efforts to deport each year more than 250,000 people living in the U.S. illegally. Lozada-Castillo’s hearing was just one of thousands that happen every week, many of which occur outside of the public’s view in detention centers across the nation.

And with stepped-up enforcement expected under President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration violations, Central Texas and the rest of the state will likely see an increase in activity by immigration and Border Patrol officers.

Pearsall immigration court

Austin has already seen U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducting more high-profile operations in the region, including the courthouse arrest of a Mexican citizen last week and an ICE raid that swept up 51 peoplesuspected of being in the country illegally.

SPECIAL REPORT: Meet the immigrants arrested in Austin ICE raids

ICE agents have appeared emboldened since Trump signed an executive order Jan. 27 that gave the agency far wider latitude on whom it detains. In Austin, more than half of the people swept up last month in Operation Cross Check were found to be noncriminals, including some whom the agency wasn’t even seeking. Many of them have been deported since then.

Nearly all of the 683 people rounded up in the nationwide operation will eventually end up at a hearing like Lozada-Castillo did.

These little-known courts conduct hearings for immigrants every day — and they take place largely out of view. At the detention center where Lozada-Castillo’s hearing was held, four judges, all hired by the U.S. Justice Department, decide who gets to stay and who is deported.

Lozada-Castillo’s hearing took place at the South Texas Detention Complex, a sprawling prisonlike facility that holds most of the immigrants detained in the Austin-San Antonio area who are accused of being in the U.S. illegally. The 1,904-bed facility is commonly known as the Pearsall Unit, named after the city of about 9,600 residents along Interstate 35 where it is located.

Of the 57 immigration courts across the U.S., the Pearsall immigration court is the seventh-busiest, according to data from the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. Pearsall had just over 10,000 hearings in 2015 — more than immigration courts in Houston and Dallas — and was second only to San Antonio among the eight immigration courts in Texas.

About 284,000 new cases were filed across those courts in 2015, and the number of new cases has topped 300,000 several times in recent years. Seventy-two percent of the people who go before the courts for possible removal are deported, according to five years of data tracking 761,000 cases.

Cases like Lozada-Castillo’s are typical for the courts. Often, a judge will hold an initial hearing for several people at once that, without a lawyer representing the immigrants, might last only two minutes. Despite their brevity, those hearings decide whether the “respondent” should be deported.

In Lozada-Castillo’s case, he sat with two other men seated beside him. All three wore headphones to hear the rapid translation from the court’s interpreter.

“It’s confusing,” immigration attorney Edna Yang said. “If you are not represented (by a lawyer) or don’t know what is going on, you might accept deportation because you don’t know what else to do.”

‘Deck is stacked against you’

Immigrants who go before the court aren’t guaranteed a lawyer, unlike citizens and immigrants in criminal court. Yang, a staff attorney for American Gateways, said she believes a large majority of people who come before the court aren’t represented by lawyers.

Aggregate data aren’t available, but research from a Syracuse University group suggests that Yang is correct. In October, the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse released a report analyzing 38,000 cases on the immigration courts’ “rocket docket” for adults with children and found that70 percent appeared before the court without an attorney to represent them.

Those unrepresented immigrants filed paperwork seeking relief from deportation through asylum and other means at a far lower rate than immigrants with lawyers, 6.5 percent, the analysis found. About 95 percent of those who received deportation orders at their initial appearance — like Lozada-Castillo — didn’t have an attorney.

Having an attorney improves the odds for those seeking to avoid deportation, but it’s not a guarantee. In Texas, roughly three-quarters of those with attorneys were still ordered deported, the TRAC data shows.

“The deck is stacked against you,” said Bob Libal, executive director of local advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, which opposes the detention of immigrants who are living in the country illegally. “The vast majority are not represented and they are fighting for their lives in a language that is not their own in a legal system that is not familiar.”

Nonprofit organizations like American Gateways offer free legal services for some immigrants in the deportation process. They also connect immigrants to attorneys available for little or no cost. And at Pearsall, immigrants are given worksheets that show organizations that might assist them in legal matters.

However, because deportation hearings are not criminal charges, respondents do not have the same right to an attorney.

The judge’s decision to deport a person or not is based on several pieces of criteria. Having children who are U.S. citizens is one factor that judges look at; another is how long a person has been in country continuously. Many immigrants will also seek asylum in confidential hearings in which they have to prove their lives could be threatened if they are returned to their country of origin.

Asylum pleas have been denied at a greater clip in recent years. In 2016, 57 percent of requests were denied, according to TRAC data, the highest rate since 2005.

Without legal representation, the hurdles are heightened for immigrants trying to prove they would be put in danger if deported.

“It’s harder to communicate to find those documents while you’re behind bars,” Libal said. Read more about 130 miles from Austin, immigration court decides the fate of thousands

Mar 3, 2017
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The Austin American Statesman

ICE agents in Travis County courthouses looking for suspects

Juan Coronilla-Guerrero was one of dozens of unauthorized immigrants released from the local jail after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez implemented a new policy to not honor many ICE detainers.

Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife, in a news release from the immigrant advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, confirmed that Coronilla-Guerrero was one of more than 30 immigrants released in the days following Hernandez’s implementation of a policy that greatly limited cooperation with ICE requests to hold suspected undocumented immigrants.

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ICE agents in Austin on Friday detained an immigrant suspected of being in the country illegally at the Travis County courthouse, in what appears to be a new tactic by immigration officials.

Defense attorney Daniel Betts confirmed to the American-Statesman that his client, Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, was detained at the courthouse, where was scheduled to appear for two misdemeanor charges, assault-family violence and possession of marijuana.

Betts said his client was arrested in an elevator at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center.

The Travis County sheriff’s office confirmed that ICE agents were at the courthouse serving a warrant.

Attorney George Lobb, who saw the arrest, said the paperwork he saw was not a warrant or other court order.

“It struck me as extraordinary,” said Betts, who added that his client was in court expressly to resolve the misdemeanor charges so we would not run into problems with immigration.

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The report of federal agents looking for suspects at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center and the Heman Sweatt Travis County Courthouse comes three weeks after an ICE enforcement operation centered on Austin and four other metro areas across the US that led to the arrests of 683 people.

In the past, deportation proceedings in Travis County have largely been prompted by an arrest that led to immigration checks. But during the four-day enforcement operation, ICE officials were out in the community, pulling people over and taking them in.

The mid-February ICE raids fueled speculation that Austin was being singled out because of recent controversy over newly elected Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policy to deny most of the agency’s requests to delay the release of inmates at the Travis County jail for immigration checks. Read more about ICE agents in Travis County courthouses looking for suspects

Mar 2, 2017
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The World Weekly

America First, minorities last?

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Since taking office, the president has sought to tackle immigration on two fronts. First, at its external borders through building a Great Wall of Mexico and imposing a travel ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. On top of this, the Department of Homeland Security announced measures that drastically expanded immigration agencies’ power to arrest and deport those in the US illegally.

On February 6, ICE officers arrested 680 people in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, New York and San Antonio. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly described these measures as a continuation of Obama-era policies that had been in place “for many years”, but the flurry of raids was seen by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union - which rushed to publish explainers on how to act in the event of an ICE raid - as the opening shot in a new war.

The number of people expelled may not yet set the Trump administration apart, but the way deportations are being carried out distinguishes it from its predecessor. Take the case of Irving Gonzales in El Paso, who was arrested inside a county courthouse moments after she had received a protective order as a victim of domestic abuse. 

Her story is one of many. In Alexandria, Virginia, agents recently waited across the street from a church, detaining several Latino immigrants as they left a cold weather shelter. Near Seattle, immigration officials raided the home of a convicted Mexican drug trafficker. They also picked up his son, part of the DACA programme, who had no criminal record and held a legal permit to work in the US.

When incidents like these occurred under President Obama, Human Rights Watch's Clara Long told TWW, the White House would usually apologise or excuse them as the misdemeanour of an overzealous agent. Now, she noted, immigration agencies are “going full steam ahead”.

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Bob Libal, executive director of the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership in Austin, Texas, agreed that the Trump administration has widened ICE’s “dredge-net”. He shared the story of two Latino brothers in Austin who had got up on a Saturday morning to go to work, and had been cornered by ICE agents in the parking lot of their apartment complex. The agents had been looking for someone else, but they asked the brothers if they had papers. They did not. One of the brothers was back in Mexico by Saturday evening.

Many of those apprehended by ICE are detained rather than deported. According to Mr. Libal, we can expect a “massive expansion” of the detention system. There are reports that immigration detention centres previously shuttered due to high-profile cases of violence, sexual and psychological abuse might be reopened. A recent New York Times op-ed asked whether these detention centres are the next Abu Ghraib. That, Mr. Libal said, is “very telling”.

... Read more about America First, minorities last?

Mar 2, 2017
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Business Insider

A notoriously abusive detention center nicknamed 'Ritmo' may be re-opening under Trump

One of America's most notorious detention centers may be opening its doors again under President Donald Trump.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is considering reactivating the vacant Willacy County Correctional Facility in Raymondville, Texas, according to Texas Monthly, prompting concerns about the center's history of abuse, neglect, and other illegal activity.

The news comes as ICE rapidly moves to expand its detention capacity along the Mexican border, under instruction from Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.

Built in 2006 with a maximum capacity of 3,000, the detention center was the largest in the country at the time —but it faced problems immediately.

Attorneys and immigration advocates revealed that undocumented immigrants were held up to 23 hours a day in the center's 10 windowless tents, and reported insufficient food, medical attention, clothing, and access to telephones, all within a year of the facility opening.

The problems continued in 2007, when in July officials discovered maggotsin the inmates' food supplies. Though officials called the incident a one-time occurrence, inmates complained the next month of mold, flooded toilets, and infestations of insects and rodents.

Inmates also claimed they were being given dirty underwear and towels for use, as well as shoes and socks with holes.  The American Bar Association reported some detainees "indicated that they had been instructed not to say anything negative to the delegation about the facility."

The facility earned the disparaging moniker "Ritmo" during this time, because it was "like Gitmo, but it's in Raymondville," said immigration lawyer Jodi Goodwin, using the nickname for the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. 

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The facility was shuttered in 2015 after inmates revolted and set fire to three of its tents, leaving the center uninhabitable — a "welcome but long overdue move," the ACLU said at the time.

However, critics are now worried about its potential re-opening.

"To reopen this troubled private prison would be a giant step backwards," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based social justice group that opposes private prisons, in a statement. Read more about A notoriously abusive detention center nicknamed 'Ritmo' may be re-opening under Trump

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