ICE unveils first-ever civil detention center
The new Texas facility is one of at least three new detention centers planned by the Obama administration. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) on Tuesday announced the opening of what the agency calls the first-ever “designed-and-built civil detention center” for immigrant detainees.
The facility in Karnes City, Texas, is the first of its kind, built under a federal overhaul of the nation’s immigrant detention system prompted by criticism of the government’s reliance on jails and jail-like buildings.
A far cry from that, the new building resembles a school more than a jail, according to media reports. It doesn’t have guards, but rather “resident advisers.” It has a gym, a soccer field, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, as well as sand and nets for beach volleyball. There is library and a cafeteria-like dinning area. It’s dormitory-style “suites” have private bathrooms. And detainees will have access to free internet, a barber shop and laundry facilities.
The seemingly more relaxed approach to immigrant detention is part of a reform strategy announced by the Obama administration in 2009. The system had been under criticism for years for its treatment of detainees, subjecting them at times to substandard medical treatment and, in many cases, moving them to remote areas away from family and their lawyers.
“This civil detention center represents a first in the entire history of immigration detention,” ICE Director John Morton said in statement. “Karnes and others like it are one part of an ICE detention reform program that is sensible, sustainable and attentive to the unique needs of the individuals in our custody.”
The 608-bed center, which will start operating fully in three weeks, will house only male detainees who pose minimals safety concerns or flight risk. It spreads over 29 acres and is designed to allow greater unescorted movement.
The Obama administration’s reform also aims to increase the number of beds available near large metropolitan areas, where immigrants and their families tend to live. The government plans to reform another center in Essex County, New Jersey, and two new centers, which will house middle- and high-risk detainees, are planned in South Florida and the Chicago area.
The new Texas center was well received by civil and immigrant rights advocates, who largely regaled it as a step in the right direction. Still, there are some, such as Ruthie Epstein of the monitoring group Human Rights First, who worry that the reform does not address some of the shortcomings of the immigrant detention system.
“Karnes County, I hope, will provide a new model for more appropriate detention conditions — a model that will mean little if it is not just a first step in transforming all facilities where ICE holds immigrants,” Epstein wrote in an opinion piece on Tuesday. “But ICE and other U.S. government agencies also need to put forth new models for due process, legal access, and alternatives to detention. Only then will the promised transformation of the immigration detention system be realized.”
In addition, as Multi-American reported, there is reason to be concerned about who owns and operates the centers. The Karnes center is owned by the county, but they serve as a middleman between ICE and The Geo Group, a private prison company that undoubtedly has an financial interest in keeping the facility full.