Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was in South Texas this week to open what is slated to become the nation's largest immigrant detention center in Dilley.
Sitting on a former "man camp" for oil field workers, it will become the site of a new family detention camp for women and children who have recently come to the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum.
The Dallas Morning News reported that the first 480 women and children are expected to arrive this week in Dilley and temporary housing under construction nearby could hold an additional 2,400. They will be held in portable buildings that can hold up to 8 women and children each.
The privately contracted facility sits on 51 acres and will have 2,400 beds at a cost of $260 million per year to taxpayers.
Johnson promoted the facility as a deterrant to others who might flee violence in Central America and come to the border seeking asylum. In a statement at the opening of the detention center, Johnson said the facility is part of "the border security aspects of the executive actions President Obama announced on Nov. 20."
The ACLU agreed and has sued the Obama Administration claiming that family detention is being used to intimidate others fleeing violence in from Central America from seeking asylum legally in the U.S.
Karnes County Commissioners voted earlier this month to allow the GEO Group to more than double the capacity of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention center for immigrant women and children from 532 to 1,200 beds and cribs. The expansion was approved by a vote of 3-2.
KSAT San Antonio reports that the county will get $125,000 annually, and more jobs at the center. According to the GEO Group, the county will also see $500,000 in additional tax revenue.
The expansion was hotly debated in Karnes for weeks, with county commission meetings uncharacteristically packed with supporters and opponents of the family detention center.
Commissioner Pete Jauer voted against the expansion in part because of threats from GEO Group that they would sue the county if they didn't vote in GEO's favor. "I still don't like to live under the threat hanging over my head with their right to sue us if they're good neighbors,” Jauer told KSAT.
Celina Moreno, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told KSAT that investigations are still underway into allegations of some female detainees at the center being sexually abused.
A corporate spokesperson for the GEO Group told KSAT they are happy with the commissioners’ vote and that work on the expansion should begin in the next 30 to 60 days.
On December 1st, the Monday after Thanksgiving, the Karnes County Commissioners Court convened for a rapidly summoned special session on the expansion of the GEO-run family detention center, now called the "Karnes County Residential Center." Though the privately operated prison company has already made record profits in the few months since it was granted a contract to detain immigrant families, they are now asking to more than double the facility's capacity from 600 beds to 1300.
Immigrant advocates and attorneys testified about the humanitarian costs of child detention and the sexual assault allegations filed by women in the detention center that are still being invistigated. Other community members were concerned that GEO is attempting to bully Karnes County into approving the expansion, despite forcing the county to shoulder the burden of investigating sexual assault cases and transporting victims. Some also expressed that many jobs were given to people outside the community and the income the county receives from the prison didn't justify the costs. GEO officials claimed that the county is contractually obligated to approve the expansion.
Due to the controversy, the commissioners extended discussion to the December 9th Commissioners Court meeting where they were to vote on the measure. However, after hearing more testimony of human rights abuses, reports of understaffing from a supervisor who works at the GEO facility, and contractual guidance from county attorneys, the decision was once again delayed.
A woman who was incarcerated in a GEO Group operated facility in Eagle Pass is suing the company for undisclosed damages for not responding to her allegations of repeated rape by a guard. The woman, who was awaiting trial, was assigned to work in the kitchen where 27-year-old guard Luis Armando Valladarez raped her several times in a storage closet.
"The suit alleges that the guard told her not to resist or tell anyone or he’d kick her off kitchen detail, revoke her visitation privileges, remove funds from her commissary account, revoke her phone privileges or throw her in 'the hole.'" It also states that she went to another guard for help, and he disregarded her claim and never reported it to anyone. The GEO Group explicitly states that they have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assaults, but the woman's pleas for help weren't taken seriously until other inmates discovered what was happening to her.
This isn't the first time the GEO Group has faced sexual assault allegations, nor is it the first claim this year. The prison operating company is also dealing with complaints of sexual abuse at the Karnes County Residential Center and many are quick to point out that the company regularly understaffs its facilities—leading to the unsupervised and unsafe conditions.