WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Women's Refugee Commission welcomes, with reservations, the opening of the Karnes County Civil Detention Center in Karnes, Texas—the first Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility built under a less penal model. The 608-bed facility, which opened on March 13, will house male immigration detainees and will be operated by the private, for-profit GEO Group. It is the first facility that ICE has built since the agency’s 2009 announcement that it would reform the immigration detention system and move away from jail-like facilities to house immigration detainees. Individuals at the facility will have less restrictive conditions, which are more appropriate for those detained under ICE’s civil authority, including more outdoor and indoor recreation, freedom of movement and contact visits with their families. There is also more natural light throughout the center than at other detention facilities.
Conditions at ICE facilities have been notoriously inhumane in the past. These reforms strive to improve conditions to meet basic human rights standards.
“This is a positive step, and what we hope is the first of many such reforms,” said Katharina Obser of the Women's Refugee Commission, who toured the facility on Tuesday. “The opening of Karnes should be followed by the closure of the remaining penal detention facilities—to ensure that ICE’s commitment to civil detention is realized beyond this one facility.”
However, ICE has indicated that it will use Karnes to detain “low-risk” individuals with little or no criminal history and who do not pose a flight risk or danger to the community. They may include asylum-seekers fleeing torture and persecution, parents seeking to be reunited with their children, victims of crime and other vulnerable populations.
“The individuals ICE plans to hold at Karnes are ideal candidates for release to their families or into community support programs or other types of low-cost alternatives to detention,” said Obser.
The Women’s Refugee Commission also has serious concerns about the due process of the individuals detained at Karnes. As part of an increasing trend for immigrants in detention, detainees at Karnes will attend immigration hearings and credible fear interviews—which determine whether they can apply for asylum—through a video-conferencing system instead of in person. The lack of access to in-person hearings is especially serious because there has been no increase in funding for local immigration legal service providers to conduct official Legal Orientation Programs. It is absolutely critical that local organizations, which are already understaffed and overburdened by providing assistance at other detention facilities in the region, receive additional resources to meet the demands that this new population will have for legal assistance. While legal service providers from Austin will conduct “Know Your Rights” presentations at Karnes, they are already stretched thin.
Karnes will not open to immigrant detainees for another few weeks, and it is too soon to judge ICE’s performance in managing this new facility. The agency has a mixed record when it comes to overseeing and monitoring its detention centers, including those that, like Karnes, are run by private, for-profit prison companies.
“Meaningful accountability and oversight will be critical to ensure the safety and well-being of the individuals held at Karnes” said Obser.