Detainees confined at a newly opened immigrant family jail have few due process protections, human rights advocates say, after touring the jail this week in Dilley, Texas, about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio. The detainees have only just received a legal briefing this week, despite the jail having been open for more than a month.
The new jail has incarcerated at least 239 people since December 18 and is owned and operated by the nation’s largest private prison company, Correction Corporation of America (CCA). Advocates expect detainees’ access to legal counsel to shrink even more considerably as the population swells to fill the jail’s 2,400-bed capacity this spring, when it will officially become the nation’s largest family jail.
The first family was deported from the jail Tuesday, January 13, only a day after the detainees received their first legal briefing on their right to seek asylum. The services were provided by the Texas-based nonprofit American Gateways.
President Obama, responding to pressure from immigrant rights activists, took executive action to offer temporary deportation relief to more than 4 million undocumented immigrants in late November and created a temporary work status, called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, for the undocumented parents of U.S.-born children.
But even as the president has offered protection from deportation in order to keep many immigrant families together, his administration has simultaneously relied on expanding for-profit family jails across South Texas, incarcerating what advocates say are vulnerable mothers and young children who pose little to no risk to national security.
Family jails are being used as a solution to last year’s influx of undocumented refugees fleeing violence and poverty from Central American countries, which has slowed considerably since the summer. (Still, almost all of the population at Dilley is from Central America).
The new 50-acre family jail at Dilley, called the South Texas Family Residential Center, opened December 15 and is located at Sendero Ranch, a “man camp” for oil and gas workers.
The opening of the family jail at Dilley, as well as the planned expansion of another for-profit family jail in Karnes County, Texas, have sparked public outcry from human rights groups who argue federal officials should pursue alternative options to family incarceration, such as case management and community support for refugees.
The Obama administration closed a similar family jail in Artesia, New Mexico, at the end of November, transferring its 650 women and children detainees to the two Texas jails at Dilley and Karnes. The Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security told The Hill that a recent decrease in migrant crossings at the southwest border allowed them to close the jail.
The Dilley jail currently has a 480-bed capacity using temporary structures for confinement, which representatives from the Women’s Refugee Commission, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the National Immigrant Justice Center visited Tuesday, January 13. Occupants are expected to be transferred to the jail’s permanent facilities, which have been under construction, in February.
The opening of the new jail comes six years after civil society groups challenged severe human rights abuses in 2009 and successfully ended the incarceration of immigrant families at the infamous T. Don Hutto Residential Center, 35 miles outside Austin. At the Hutto jail, children were made to wear prison uniforms and regularly threatened with separation from their mothers as a means of discipline. Families were confined to their cells 12 hours a day, with children receiving only an hour of schooling per day. The Hutto jail, which now incarcerates only adult women, is run by the same company operating the Dilley jail — CCA.
“It was emphasized to us repeatedly that the conditions we observed at the Dilley facility are temporary. As we’ve mentioned when we approached the facility, this is a massive space. In what had previously been an enormous, empty field, was now a massive construction zone, with some of the new structures that will replace current structures,” said Katharina Obser, who is program officer in the Migrant Rights and Justice Program with the Refugee Commission, during a press call. “So, it’s a bit premature to say what Dilley will look and feel like in a few months time, when the population will be 10 times the size of what we saw yesterday.”
Of the 239 people currently incarcerated at the Dilley jail, 108 are mothers and 131 are children, the majority of whom are school age, with the youngest child being 18 months old, according to the advocates who toured the jail. For very young children, cribs are provided in place of the usual bunk beds, the advocates reported.
The advocates expressed concerns over the lack of Indigenous-language interpreters at the Dilley jail, saying they spoke with four Indigenous-language-speaking detainees who have been unable to communicate with other detainees, guards, attorneys or judges.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee office in Washington, D.C., more than 60 percent of the children and families fleeing violence in Central American countries have legitimate claims to asylum and international protections.
Advocates who visited the jail at Dilley said that more than 80 percent of the detainees had expressed a fear of returning to their home countries, a crucial aspect of a legitimate claim to asylum. The activists expect that number to increase as more attorneys begin to consult with people inside the jail.
“At a facility with 2,400, and then 1,200 more at Karnes, once the population has doubled there, there will be no way to provide effective legal representation to the majority of women being held in detention,” said Christina Brown, who is lead attorney with the Lawyers Association’s Immigration Council Artesia Pro Bono Project.
“The government has settled on a very arbitrary timeline of eight days to push people through the credible fear process, which is a very important process at the beginning of the asylum claim, and with nearly 4,000 women and children between the two facilities, no amount of legal representation is going to be effective in making sure that every legitimate claim is being heard.”
Obser said the detainees are subject to head counts every three hours, which involve guards walking into their quarters during all hours of the night.
The Refugee Commission and other human rights organizations have documented the dramatic effect that incarceration has on a mother’s ability to effectively parent a child at other jails similar to the Dilley family jail, which specifically confines mothers and children. In confinement, the familial structure is undermined by the rules and decisions of the guards who operate the jail, and children often experience depression after being incarcerated for many months.
In addition to what the advocates say are dehumanizing and demoralizing living conditions at Texas’s family jails, the costs of incarcerating undocumented immigrant families is vastly more expensive than more humane alternatives.
“The costs for family detention, especially for Dilley, given that it’s so, supersized — Texas-sized, as we’ve called it — the budget that comes with that is astronomical,” said Royce Bernstein Murray, director of policy at the Immigrant Justice Center. Murray said the estimated cost of incarcerating families at the jail ranges between $266 to $300 per person per day.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson traveled to Dilley in December to announce the opening of the jail, arguing it would act as a deterrent to undocumented families in Central American countries considering fleeing to the United States.
“It will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back,” he said, speaking directly to undocumented mothers and children. But immigrant rights advocates argue this thinking is fundamentally flawed, and that those fleeing violence won’t be deterred in any case.
“The policy of detaining children with their mothers in order to deter the migration of future children with their mothers is not only illogical and ineffective but utterly inhumane,” Murray said.