An Austin-based attorney and paralegal team claims that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has banned the paralegal from entering the Karnes County Residential Center after The Texas Observer published an article she wrote that was critical of the family detention center.
Paralegal and former Observer intern Victoria Rossi told the Observer that she thinks the timing of her banishment from working as a paralegal at the Karnes family detention center is suspicious because it comes after she published an article that detailed what she saw inside Karnes.
“I’m hoping it’s just a technical error, but the timing of it, I worry that it’s reactive to the article,” Rossi said.
Attorney Virginia Raymond, who employs Rossi as a paralegal, agrees. “It’s straight-up interference with access to counsel. It’s an intimidation tactic.”
The story begins in October 2014, when, Raymond submitted a security clearance application for Rossi which was approved by ICE. From then on, Rossi says she faxed the required intent-to-visit notices to Karnes, 24 hours in advance to any future visit to the facility.
Then, on January 15, Rossi arrived at the Karnes facility where officers stopped her from entering and questioned her about the purpose of her visit.
ICE officials told Raymond that there had been a clerical error on Rossi’s initial application and that Rossi only had permission to work in the facility as an interpreter, not as a paralegal.
Rossi and Raymond decided to reapply for paralegal access.
After completing a lengthy re-application for clearance process, Rossi and Raymond were denied once again on March 23. This time, the letter received from ICE gave no reason except that Rossi could not enter, “in the capacity of a paralegal.”
Rossi’s article for The Observer was published in February and, described her experience working at the Karnes family detention center:
We’d driven to Karnes because a family we represent—Reza and her daughters, Julie and Dalia (not their real names)—was scheduled to be released that night. Though a judge had set their bond impossibly high—impossible, that is, for an impoverished Honduran woman—we’d cobbled together the funds from individual donations and the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. An $8,000 money order had been deposited at an ICE office in San Antonio that morning. Now it was 3 p.m.; if everything went smoothly, Reza, Julie and Dalia would be free by nightfall.
Growing up, I always heard that immigrants came to this country “in search of better lives,” for “more opportunities.” They wanted to make money and to educate their kids, I was told. But the people in Karnes are scared. They’re running from something. And they’re not running just to the United States. According to the U.N., asylum applications to countries surrounding violence-torn El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala increased by 712 percent between 2008 and 2013. What happened on the U.S. border last summer was not, as some have said, an immigration crisis. It was a refugee crisis.
I could understand Virginia’s urge to see Reza. Karnes seemed like the sort of place where things could go wrong. Phones weren’t allowed past the metal detectors. There is no Internet access inside, and all the walkways and buzzers and antechambers separating the receptionist’s desk from the visiting area meant that communication with the outside world was difficult.
The Karnes detention center was at the center of two hunger strikes this month. In the first, 78 women refused to eat or use any services in the facility from March 31 to April 4. Ten days later, 10 women restarted the fast to protest their detention.
This isn’t the first time that ICE has been accused to retaliating against legal service providers. Raymond also told truth-out.org that another paralegal, RAICES' Johana De Leon, was banned from working inside Karnes after ICE accused her of organizing the hunger strike.
The Karnes facility holds 532 beds and cribs for refugee women and children and is operated by GEO Group.
Last week immigrant mothers detained at Karnes Detention Center near San Antonio told reporters that they faced retaliation after declaring a hunger strike to demand their release and protest the conditions in which they and their children are being held.
Advocates say that although 40 to 45 women initially began participating in the hunger strike, that number decreased after three women perceived as leaders were placed in isolation in a dark medical clinic with their children overnight on Monday.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is expected to investigate these allegations.
There are also reports that facility guards threatened women participating in the strike with deportation or having their children taken away. Additionally, there are anecdotal reports that all food was cleared from the fridges, even for those women who were not fasting, and that facility officials tightly monitored calls and cut off any conversation that mentioned the hunger strike.
One San Antonio paralegal was accused of inciting the protest and has been banned from the facility, despite multiple statements from both the women inside and advocates that the detained mothers are acting of their own accord. The hunger strike spanned 4 days, from the morning of Tuesday March 31 to Saturday April 4.
Last month, February 25th, an uprising over negligence, poor sanitation, and lack of medical care occurred at the “Tent City” criminal alien requirement (CAR) prison in Willacy County. Following the uprising, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) lost its contract with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and fired the nearly 400 employees that worked there. All of the 2,400 prisoners were transferred to other facilities around the country.
Although MTC is investigating the uprising, there are no immediate plans to reopen the facility. The damage, loss of the BOP contract, and the layoffs are piling up on top of the county's $63 million debt from the building of the facility.
All this has caused the Willacy County Local Government Corp. bonds to be downgraded to junk status by the S&P. The already struggling county will be left to fill the gaps in its budget, and will not be able to afford some of its planned expenditures — including a new hurricane shelter.
The model of MTC and other private prison companies is to find small, struggling towns and counties like Willacy and Raymondsville and promise them economic recovery. The aftermath of the Willacy uprising is one more example of how they do not deliver on their promises, and if anything goes wrong, the companies bail — leaving the vulnerable community to fend for itself.
Yesterday, reports emerged that nearly 80 immigrant women at Karnes family detention center near San Antonio signed a letter announcing that beginning this morning they would participate in a Holy Week fast, during which they would not eat, send their children to school, or use any facility services until they received an answer to their demands.
According to their letter, the purpose of the strike is to demand their release and protest the conditions in which their children are being held.
The original hand-written letter is pictured above, and a translated version reads as follows:
“In the name of the mothers, residents of the Center for Detentions in Karnes City, we are writing this petition whereby we ask to be set free with our children. There are mothers here who have been locked in this place for as long as 10 months.
We also have mothers, that because they have had a previous deportation, are not granted a bond. They are granting a bond to their children, but they are not allowing an out to the mothers. This is the motive that we have taken the initiative of uniting ourselves and initiating a Hunger Strike, so that you can see and feel our desperation.
We have come to this country, with our children, seeking refugee status and we are being treated like delinquents. We are not delinquents nor do we pose any threat to this country.
During this Hunger Strike, no mother will work in the center of detention or send our children to school. We will not use any of the services provided by this place until we have been heard and our freedom has been approved.
All of the mothers demand that you give us a solution. Included amongst us are mothers whom this is the first time they have been in this country.
Asylum Officials have conducted Credible Fear Interviews and determined them to be Positive. Even after having a result of positive, we are still detained because we are not able to pay the elevated bond and in some cases we are not given the opportunity to pay the bond.
You should know that this is only the beginning and we will not stop until we achieve our objectives. This strike will continue until every one of us is freed.
The conditions, in which our children find themselves, are not good. Our children are not eating well and every day they are losing weight. Their health is deteriorating.
We know that any mother would do what we are doing for their children.
We deserve to be treated with some dignity and that our rights, to the immigration process, be respected.There are some mothers that lost their appeal for Asylum and were forced to sign deportation papers. We believe that this is unjust because they have come to this country asking for Asylum because they are in danger in their country. And now they are being deported back to the place where they could even lose their life.
This petition is signed by all the mothers, of this center, in detention.”