On any given day, at least 34,000 people are detained in immigrant detention centers in the U.S. to meet an arbitrary lock-up quota dictated by Congress. Stopping the quota would be a giant step forward in ending our reliance on detention. Grassroots Leadership researches and exposes the role of for-profit prisons and their lobbyists in enacting the quota contributes to the growing national movement to stop immigrant detention.
Detention and the #EndTheQuota Campaign
(Austin, Texas) — Yesterday Austin advocates launched a campaign demanding the release of Brenda Menjivar Guardado, a young woman from El Salvador who is experiencing serious symptoms related to improper treatment of diabetes by medical staff at the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas. Read more about Diabetic woman detained at Hutto in urgent need of emergency care for improper treatment: Attorney’s request for medical release was denied this morning
(CONROE, Texas) — Montgomery County residents rallied yesterday outside the County Commissioners building against the new 1,000-bed detention center being built right next to the existing Joe Corley Detention Center and Montgomery County Mental Health Facility. The White Construction Company has already broken ground on the new facility, called the Montgomery ICE Processing Center according to a sign at the construction site. Read more about Montgomery County residents protest massive new for-profit immigrant detention camp: Construction begins on first new detention camp under Trump administration
Drunken driving. Property theft. Possession of a controlled substance.
These are some of the crimes for which the Travis County Sheriff’s Office did not honor requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain suspected undocumented immigrants past their sentences or dispositions.
Records obtained by KUT News show that while Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policy regarding ICE detainers is largely being applied as laid out, in a couple of cases it was applied inconsistently, specifically when it concerned reoffenders.
On February 1, Hernandez’s policy went into effect: She would honor ICE detainer requests only if someone had been charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking, or had been convicted of these crimes in the past. She also maintained the ability to assess requests on a case-by-case basis. Later, the sheriff expanded her policy to include crimes committed against children and the elderly.
In a second case, an 18-year-old man was accused of organized criminal activity. Travis County declined the ICE detainer request placed on him, and he was released from jail on a personal recognizance bond, or no-cost bond.
A month later, in April, he was again booked into the Travis County Jail, this time on a home burglary charge. Travis County honored a second ICE detainer request placed on the man and he was released to federal immigration agents. Dark said the man’s escalating criminal activity might explain the decision to turn him over to ICE – but when she spoke with KUT she did not have the notes in front of her from the captain who made the decision.
Bob Libal, executive director of the immigrants’ rights group Grassroots Leadership, said he’s concerned by these inconsistencies.
“I do think that it raises concerns if the policy is not being followed,” he said.
“It’s really disappointing to hear,” said Amy Fischer, policy director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, when told about the few inconsistencies in the application of Hernandez’s policy. “She’s gained a lot of political brownie points as someone who’s claiming to stand up for the immigrant community, and it shows that when push comes to shove that she’s laying down to the federal government.”
While Hernandez’s policy states that she maintains the right to assess ICE detainers on a case-by-case basis, most of the charges for which people were released to ICE fell below the threshold Hernandez set in her policy. They included charges of DUI, home burglary, domestic violence, manufacture and delivery of a drug, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and sexual abuse of a child.
An oft-overlooked portion of Hernandez’s policy is the consideration of criminal history. In the case that someone committed one of the three violent felonies she set – murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking – the ICE detainer placed on them would be honored.
Libal with Grassroots Leadership and Fischer with RAICES said they were concerned from the beginning to learn that Hernandez’s policy included the intent to honor any ICE detainers.
“Obviously, it’s good news that we have a dramatic reduction in the number of immigration detainers in our community,” Libal said. “But it doesn’t solve many of the issues that were raised by (detainers), including constitutional issues. It doesn’t matter what the criminal charge is. The sheriff is agreeing to honor a detainer that does not come with any backing of a warrant.” Read more about Here's what we learned about requests from ICE to pick up Travis County inmates
This week, Texas lawmakers advanced a bill crafted by for-profit prison interests that would license lockups for asylum-seeking immigrant families as child care providers.
Senate Bill 1018, which would lower state standards for two South Texas immigrant detention centers so they can qualify as Texas-approved "family residential centers," passed its first hurdle in the Texas Senate on Tuesday with a 20-11 vote along party lines. Immigrant rights advocates opposed to it say it's just the state's latest attempt to help keep the family lockups open as federal court orders threaten to shutter them. Democratic lawmakers fighting the bill say it would license "baby jails."
The feds' last foray into family detention was at the infamous T. Don Hutto detention center in central Texas that was run by CCA. There, immigration lawyers and human rights activists complained of children dressed in prison-like jumpsuits and kept in small cells for 14 hours a day. A legal challenge by the ACLU ultimately forced the feds to pull children out of Hutto in 2009, citing a longstanding legal settlement that was supposed to bar the feds from ever again holding immigrant kids in a prison-like environment.
Which is why lawyers challenged the practice of holding kids at Dilley and Karnes, sometimes for months. A year after they opened, a federal judge in California delivered a pair of court rulings that unambiguously condemned the practice of child detention, writing that the government hadn't provided "any competent evidence" to support its argument for jailing asylum-seeking families as a default measure. As part of her ruling, the judge said the feds couldn’t hold kids in facilities that aren’t licensed to house or care for children.
Advocacy groups like Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, which has criticized the conditions immigrants are housed in at Dilley and Karnes, thought the courts were on the verge of forcing an end to family detention. After all, when dealing with complaints over facilities like Hutto, the Texas Department of Family Protective Services had previously insisted it had no oversight role over private prison-run immigrant detention centers that house children in Texas and couldn't license them or hold them to a higher standard.
Grassroots had to sue to force Texas child welfare officials to even hold apublic hearing on the matter, which did not go particularly well for the agency. Child welfare experts, immigrant rights advocates, former immigrant detainees and even a woman born behind barbed wire in a Japanese internment camp condemned the practice of family detention and insisted state licensing would only enable a practice that's destructive to healthy child development. Mothers spoke of being separated from their children for extended periods of time and inadequate medical care. Mental health experts who'd visited the facilities spoke of children losing weight, shedding hair and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression in lockup. Social workers claimed they'd been reprimanded by private prison staff for trying to help suffering mothers or children navigate the facility's grievance process.
Then last December, a Travis County judge blocked DFPS from licensing the child lockups, ruling that the state can't arbitrarily lower its standards in order to cover a couple of private prison facilities.
So lobbyists with the GEO Group, which operates the Karnes detention center, decided to try another route. As the Associated Press reported last month, the company helped draft the proposal now snaking through the Texas Legislature that would give DFPS the authority to license the detention centers. Its supporters argue it's a way to ensure families aren't separated in detention; Democrats arguing against the measure in the Senate Tuesday called it a "vendor bill."
If the bill passes a third reading in the Senate, it moves on to the state House. Still, it's unclear whether lawmakers will have enough time to send the measure to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk before the fast-approaching end of the session on May 29.
But to Grassroots executive director Bob Libal, whose group sued the state over the licensing issue, the episode constitutes just another state attempt to help private prison corporations keep alive the controversial practice of family detention.
"The push to license the family jails has never been about protecting children, but about protecting the profits of private prison companies," Libal said in a prepared statement last month. "The state should stand up to these interests and for the rights of children and reject these unjust bills." Read more about Will Texas Lawmakers License "Baby Jails" For Asylum-Seeking Families?
Without warning Sunday evening, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4 into law.
Offering no notice to media until after he signed the bill, Abbott only issued a press release and a video of himself via Facebook defending the legislation that attacks so-called “sanctuary cities." (The term carries no legal definition but refers to, in the eyes of Abbott, any municipality that isn't acting in lockstep with federal immigration policy.) The clandestine move assured no major citizen-led protests or demonstrations – like the all day sit-in at his offices last week – would prevent the governor from ushering the “Show Me Your Papers” bill into law.
"It seems fitting that Greg Abbott would sign this disgraceful bill on the internet on a Sunday night, far from the press and the public,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “But we will not be bullied by this law. Communities across the state are vowing that the resistance to SB 4 is only just beginning."
SB 4 imposes civil and criminal penalties on law enforcement leaders who fail to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests and allows police to inquire about immigration status of those that they detain. The law also allows the removal of any elected or appointed official who does not comply with the law. Two weeks ago the Texas House held a 16-hour debate on SB 4, where Democrats sought unsuccessfully to soften the extreme piece of legislation, before sending it to the Senate for final approval. The bill is often cited as racist and unconstitutional, and stood as one of Abbott’s major legislative priorities this session. Barring a court challenge, SB 4 will become law Sept. 1. Read more about Abbott Signs "Sanctuary Cities" Bill into Law
About 100 people gathered in protest outside the Governor’s Mansion Sunday night after Gov. Greg Abbott on Facebook Live signed into law a controversial bill that will ban so-called “sanctuary cities,” where officials decline to enforce federal immigration policies.
Protestors carried banners and balloons and lit candles, vowing to defeat the law, which will impose penalties on law enforcement officials who do not comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies.
Representatives from the United We Dream national nonprofit, the University Leadership Initiative, Grassroots Leadership and the Workers Defense Project are all in attendance at protests Sunday night.
Abbott’s office gave little advance warning of the highly anticipated signing, which ensured that protesters could not disrupt it.
The five-minute Facebook Live video had been viewed tens of thousands of times as of Sunday evening. Read more about Dozens protest law banning sanctuary cities at Governor's Mansion
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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