Federal officials plan to open a detention center for immigrant children and their parents — and the massive new facility could be run by a controversial for-profit prison firm with a documented history in Texas for providing sub-par living conditions to the families locked up.
Less than five years after the Department of Homeland Security forced the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to halt family detentions at its facilities in Taylor, Texas, the private-prison firm is reportedly in talks to open a new 50-acre family detention center located less than 200 miles away, just outside of San Antonio.
The proposal is just the latest in a push to house detained Central American families as their await immigration court proceedings. The need for a short-term fix is raising concerns with the federal government's long-term strategy, which will need to cope with the thousands of children streaming across the U.S. border and return them home to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
While the rate of unaccompanied minors caught at the southwestern border continues to slow, and federal agencies shutter the makeshift facilities built over the summer to process the children, refugee advocates warn against turning to for-profit prisons as a means to house detained families who have made the journey from Central America.
“It’s a terrible idea. When you’re detaining families for any extended period of time, you run into all sorts of problems,” said Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It breaks down the structure of families. There is no way to do it humanely.”
Most unaccompanied minors caught at the border are held in temporary shelters across the country before being reunited with family members in the U.S. as they await their immigration hearings. Courts could take as many as two years — sometimes longer — to reach outcomes on those cases and, for most of the children who do not qualify for humanitarian relief, they will inevitably be deported back to their home countries.
"It’s a terrible idea. When you’re detaining families for any extended period of time, you run into all sorts of problems."'
Rather than be released in the U.S. while awaiting court appearances, a growing number of families are being detained in converted facilities across the U.S. An all-male detention center in Karnes City, Texas, was turned into a family unit earlier this summer, while in Artesia, New Mexico, a detention center was built to hold more than 600 women and children. The U.S. has already deported some 280 children and their parents, placing them on flights back to their home countries. Federal officials have said those deportation numbers are expected to grow as more families are processed.
For the proposed facility in South Texas, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said it would finalize contracts "following all necessary reviews," but it remains unclear how much the project will cost to build and operate, or when construction will be complete. As many as 680 immigrants will be held at the existing site at Sendero Ranch in the town of Dilley, Texas, as the new facilities are built, ICE officials said.
"ICE's family residential centers are an effective option to maintain family units as they await the outcome of immigration hearings or return to their home countries," spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda said in a statement. "ICE ensures that family detention facilities operate in an open environment that includes play rooms, social workers, medical care, and classrooms with state-certified teachers and bilingual teachers."
The approach in bolstering detention resources for immigrant families is retreading on a strategy that advocates warn has already proven to be a failure. It's additionally problematic if the government were to use a prison contractor with a poor track record.
In 2007, the ACLU and University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic won a settlement with ICE over the allegedly deplorable conditions at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, claiming children were forced to wear prison uniforms, given limited time outdoors and not provided education or medical care. The facility, run by CCA, was ordered to remove families from the facility in 2009.
“The conditions that the kids were in were pretty inhumane and not living up to the letter of the law,” said ACLU deputy legal director Vanita Gupta, who won the family detention settlement. "The kind of trends in migration at that point let us believe that there would no longer be a need for family detention facilities."
However in the last fiscal year, more than 66,000 family units have been caught along the southwestern border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, adding to an already strained system that is trying to handle thousands of immigrants that advocates say could have legitimate claims to asylum or humanitarian relief in the U.S.
Advocates say that building more detention centers does not sufficiently address the bottleneck in the court system. And with detention facilities located in geographically remote areas, they will only do more harm by preventing immigrant families from accessing legal services.
"It locks us into a long-term strategy that once they realize how bad it is, there is no turning back," Brané said.