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Human rights groups sound alarm on immigrant detention policy

Advocates say the government is embarking on a dangerous path by once again locking up immigrant families in detention centers, which have failed in the past.

In the eyes of human rights advocates, the federal government is embarking on a dangerous path by once again locking up immigrant women and children in family detention centers, a system they say has failed in the past.

The groups have been adamantly against the expansion of family detention facilities after a growing number of children and parents caught along the U.S. border strained government resources to capacity. At the start of the summer, only one small facility in Pennsylvania was catered toward immigrant mothers and children. Since then, two more facilities have been converted into detention centers, with plans for a third, massive facility likely on the way.

"We are very concerned to see the continued expansion of family detention, which we know does not work," said Katharina Obser of the human rights group Women’s Refugee Commission.

After touring facilities this week at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, one of three operating detention centers, groups on Thursday raised concerns that families aren't being given necessary access to legal services and that conditions are beginning to take a toll on detained children.

"We heard directly from mothers who told us stories that show that their children's health is being harmed," Adriana Piñon, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, told reporters. "Their children have been slowly losing weight since their detention began."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson Carl Rusnok said that the detention centers for women and children are an “effective and humane alternative to maintain family unity.” Karnes provides play rooms, access to social workers and a computer lab for families. Teachers from a nearby charter school come to the facilities to provide lessons for the kids.

"Reports of children losing weight are unsubstantiated," Rusnok said in a statement. "Children are provided three meals per day, and health snacks are available 24/7."

According to Obser, it is not a lack of food at the facilities that is leading mothers to believe their children are losing weight -- many simply do not want to eat food they are unaccustomed to.

Advocates have warned for months that a heightened focus on detention was not an appropriate response to coping with the surge of families who have crossed the southwestern border. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 66,000 family units have entered the country in the last fiscal year, many of whom human rights groups argue may have legitimate claims to seek asylum or humanitarian relief in the states.

The groups that visited Karnes this week said ICE officials in the facility believe as many as 90% of the 530 people being detained there expressed fears about being returned to their home countries. And unlike thousands of unaccompanied minors who are being released to family and sponsors across the country, families detained in the newly converted facilities are awaiting proceedings before an immigration court.

Like most for-profit firms that oversee the day-to-day operations of immigrant detention centers across the country, private prison company GEO Group faces intense scrutiny in light of the federal government's poor track record in running detention centers fit for children and families.

Citing “deplorable conditions,” the ACLU and the University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic filed a lawsuit in 2007 against the nearby T. Don Hutto Residential Center, alleging that children were forced to wear prison uniforms and given limited education, medical care or time outdoors. The Department of Homeland Security stepped in two years later, forcing the facility to shutter its family detention operations amid claims of human rights abuses.

Civil rights groups have already filed a lawsuit on behalf of mothers being held at the family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. The groups allege the federal government has trampled the due process rights of the mothers being held, a problem they say is only exacerbated by the detention centers themselves.

“No matter what the dressing of the family detention centers that are constructed, there is no way to do family detention the right way,” Piñon said, “and we are prepared to litigate.”