Over 600 protesters called for the end of the incarceration of immigrant women and children in Dilley, Texas on May 2, shutting down a highway along the way.
Organized by Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families, the protest brought people from Austin, San Antonio, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo, Dallas, Falfurrias, San Marcos, and Elgin, Texas; as well as from Silver City and Santa Fe NM, Des Moines IA, Washington D.C., New York City, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Orange County, California. Protesters began in a park in central Dilley and marched almost 2 miles to the family detention camp.
During the march, they forced the closure of Texas Highway 85. Once outside the gates of the camp, the protesters heard from people who had been detained, including a woman who was held in a Japanese incarceration camp during WWII.
The South Texas Family Residential Center opened in December 2014 as the administration’s response to the arrival of Central American women and children seeking asylum from domestic violence, organized crime and gang violence.
"Many of them are escaping from violence and torture, from abuse at the hands of gangs," Sofia Casini told the Texas Tribune. "To be put inside of centers with armed guards, where the kids are yelled at, it's all a re-traumatization process."
Operated by The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the South Texas Family Residential Center is one of two family detention centers in Texas, along with the Karnes County Residential Center, which is operated by the GEO Group and can currently can hold 600 women and children. Karnes is set to expand to a capacity of 1,200. The Dilley facility detains 480 women and children, and is set to become the largest immigrant detention center in the United States with a capacity of 2,400.
In a statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said that facilities like the one in Dilley are "an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family units."
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.