Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar drew a rebuke from his colleagues in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for proposing legislation that would make it easier to deport Central American children who are turning themselves in at the southern border.
Rep. Cuellar, along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), proposed legislation to allow unaccompanied migrant children from Central America to leave the U.S. voluntarily rather than go through mandated legal processes — a "voluntary removal" system that is the current standard for children from Mexico and Canada.
The two Texas lawmakers call it the "Humane Act" and it changes a 2008 law, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act, or TVPRA, to make it easier to deport these children faster, who are mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Currently, the TVPRA requires that unaccompanied minors from countries other than Canada and Mexico to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, and then released to the custody of relatives or other caregivers as they wait to have their cases heard in immigration court.
The New York Times notes that "The act sought to protect young victims of human trafficking. It was widely praised by lawmakers of both parties when President George W. Bush signed it into law."
They also called it a terrible idea.
Rep. Henry Cuellar is a familiar name to readers of this blog for his close ties to GEO Group. Thanks to campaign contributions from GEO, Rep. Cuellar is the top Democratic recipient of private prison money in the House.
The GEO-owned Karnes Detention Center sits in Rep. Cuellar's district and was recently in the news because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) plans on detaining families there as soon as August.
A suspended ceiling collapsed Saturday at a for-profit private prison in East Texas, injuring several prisoners and trapping several others who needed to be rescued.
The collapse happened in the day room of the Diboll Correctional Center, which is southwest of Lufkin. The facility is operated by the Management and Training Corporation under contract by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. According to the MTC website, it has a capacity of 518 prisoners. The facility has 136 employees, 97 security guards and 20 non-security personnel. The facility was built in 1995.
The Lufkin Daily News reports that one incarcerated person suffered critical injuries and several others suffered non-life threatening injuries. Diboll Police Sgt. Brandan Lovell told the Lufkin Daily News that 87 inmates were in the room at the time of collapse. The collapse sent several prisoners to area hospitals:
Several were transported by ambulance to Memorial Medical Center-Lufkin and Woodland Heights Medical Center in Lufkin.
Memorial spokeswoman Yana Ogletree confirmed that six patients were transported there, with one listed as critical. That inmate was transported by helicopter to Memorial Hermann Healthcare System in Houston. Of the five remaining patients, two were admitted and three were in triage, being treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Around 5:37 p.m., Ogletree gave a update that one inmate had been discharged from Memorial and that two more would likely be discharged, as well. Two patients were expected to be admitted to the hospital, with one likely to need surgery, Ogletree said. She said the range of injuries included scrapes and bruises as well as broken bones, contusions and lacerations.
Jennifer Stevens, spokeswoman for Woodland Heights Medical Center, said 13 patients from the collapse were taken to that hospital and that two were admitted. Both were in stable condition, she said.
The collapse happened as prisoners and their families were preparing for visitation. Katrina Salutan was with her daughter Aaliyah, 3, preparing to visit someone at the facility when the collapse occurred.
“There were all these police cars up here,” Salutan told the Lufkin Daily News. “One of the guards walked by. He told me that the ceiling fell down, and I asked him who was hurt and he said, ‘A few people.’ He doesn’t know.”
Visitation was suspended for the day.
For their part, local law enforcement were caught off guard and also had trouble getting answers from MTC. Lufkin Police Chief Gerald Williamson told the Lufkin Daily News that he had never handled anything like this at the prison and that, like Salutan, he wasn't getting information fast enough from MTC staff.
“We are in a little bit of an odd situation because this is not our jurisdiction,” Williamson told the Lufkin Daily News. “The information has been very slow coming from prison staff. We don’t have any established protocol because we have never handled anything like this.”
Diboll Police Sgt. Lovell said response time from every area law enforcement agency was almost immediate, but echoed Williamson's concerns about how difficult it was to get information from MTC officials.
“I think Lufkin Police arrived before I did; even the chief and assistant chief are here,” Lovell told the Lukfin Daily News. “As far as what is going on inside, I am having to pull information from there. Even the guards don’t know what’s happening. I do know there is no threat of an escape. I think, given the situation, this has been handled as well as could be without getting any info from the inside.”
The Lufkin Daily News also reported that Major Ken Montgomery, an MTC official, stepped outside the gates only after the emergency response vehicles had cleared and offered this brief statement: “We’re good.”
The Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco was the site of a protest on July 12. The detention center is operated by private prison company LaSalle Southwest Corrections.
Protestors came from Waco, Austin, Dallas, and Taylor to deliver know-your-rights materials to the facility after attorneys in Central Texas sounded the alarm overconditions in the center.
MyFox Austin reports:
"Protestors said the detention center should not be used to hold ICE detainees.
"I would love to see our local jail, our local law-enforcement abide by the law and then just not even enforce those, because they don't have to," said Waco immigration lawyer Kent McKeever.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, (D) TX-35, agrees that detention centers aren't the answer.
"I think we should look for alternatives to detention centers. There's so many religious organizations and community service organizations that will be willing to host some of these families. That's the better approach," said Doggett.
Protestors said the center lacks adequate medical care, doesn't provide access to a legal library, limits visitation and treats detainees like criminals.
"The families are being broken up for unfair, unjust and irrational reasons," McKeever said.
The Jack Harwell Detention Center said they are required to follow National Detention Standards. They said they meet those standards and strive to provide the best care they can for detainees."
A West Texas city is looking to get a boost from the humanitarian crisis of Central American children and families who have turned up at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Officials in the City of Littlefield are asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to send some of the families to their empty private prison, and hoping it will be the end of a years-long debacle that started when the for-profit private prison came to town.
The facility in question, the Bill Clayton Detention Center, has been trouble for the city and taxpayers from the start. It was was built in 2000 as a state prison for juveniles, but the Texas legislature decided to remove juveniles from the facility in 2003.
The GEO Group operated the facility until 2009, which was housing adults at the time. The facility shut its doors in 2009 after the company lost contracts in to hold prisons there from Idaho and Wyoming.
Littlefield City Manager Mike Arismendez told KCBD in Lubbock that a contract with ICE could mean having the facility up and running soon to detain the women and children seeking refuge at the border.
“It would actually be a revenue stream to be able to offset the debt we have on the facility,” Arismendez said.
The Bill Clayton Detention Center's troubled history has been extensively covered here.
Randal McCullough, 37, committed suicide at Bill Clayton after nearly year in solitary confinement and soon afterward, the Idaho Department of Corrections cancelled its contract with the GEO Group and removed its prisoners from the facility. Idaho's audit uncovered a routine falsifying of reports; guards claimed to be monitoring prisoners at regular intervals, but were often away from their assigned posts for hours on end.
When the GEO Group pulled out of the facility, it left Littlefield residents without revenue and responsible for an $11 million building project that is still a money pit. The town tried to auction the empty facility in 2011, but the only bidder pulled out.
The idea to house refugee families at Bill Clayton is a bipartisan issue for Littlefield, with the support of both U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, and his Democratic opponent in the November general election, Neal Marchbanks, who also supports detaining families at Bill Clayton also.
“It sounds bad to put [children] in a prison, but that’s about all we can do," Marchbanks said.
Rep. Neugebauer thinks Bill Clayton is worth a look for ICE. “The federal criteria is pretty high, but that’s a great facility," he told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal on July 8. "Certainly, if they are looking for additional facilities, we want to make sure they take a look at it.”
However, by July 13 Rep. Neugebauer told the paper he didn't support the proposal to detain families there because it only encouraged illegal immigration and that he actually supported immediate deportation of the children.
The proposal has stoked familiar fears in some Littlefield residents. "I’m afraid of what diseases might be brought into our school," local resident Cindy McNeese said. Detained asylum seekers are not allowed to leave federal custody at immigrant detention centers. Marchbanks did admit that children coming to the U.S. from countries with unstable governments “are almost requesting political asylum.”
Project leaders don’t plan to significantly renovate the facility — just make it livable. They’ll remove intimidating razor wire, for example, and paint gray doors a cheerier shade of blue or red.
A new coat of paint is unlikely to be enough to quell concerns over putting families into detention. The history of family detention in the U.S. is abysmal, with the example of the T. Don Hutto Detention Center still fresh in the minds of many. At Hutto, reports emerged that children as young as eight months old wore prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open- toilets, subjected to highly restricted movement, and threatened with alarming disciplinary tactics, including threats of separation from their parents if they cried too much or played too loudly. Medical treatment was inadequate and children as young as one lost weight.
A town hall meeting regarding the plan is set for 6 p.m. today, Tuesday July 14, at Littlefield Junior High School.