Toward a Tent City world

Recurrent public protests in Central Texas, prison uprisings in the West, while down in the Valley detainees staged waves of hunger strikes. All occurred in the last few years; all involve Texas immigration prisons operating for profit. Such facilities represent a growing field for security companies specializing in the warehousing of skyrocketing immigrant prison populations. It’s meant business for the typically rural, economically disadvantaged counties that host them, and the unraveling of untold migrant families.

Despite promises a year ago to reform its facilities and the detention contracts it manages, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has changed little that human rights advocates can see. With Congressionally mandated enforcement requiring that all immigrants convicted of even misdemeanor crimes be held in detention, the immigrant prison population has more than doubled in a decade, to nearly 400,000 last year.

Texas has felt that growth more than most other states. “In the ’80s we had a couple of detention centers in Texas and now we have more than a dozen detention centers and more than 10,000 immigrant detention beds,” said Bob Libal, organizer for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based non-profit dedicated to eradicating for-profit prisons (and thereby, hopefully, their continued abuses). Recently, ICE began circulating a Request for Proposals for a new detention center to be located somewhere between Laredo and San Antonio, Libal said. “Nobody’s really talking about it, but I think they’re moving in the wrong direction if they’re talking about building new detention centers. … If you have these enforcement programs that sweep more and more people into detention and you don’t have any sort of solution for legalizing people, they’re going to continue to have these problems.”

Places like Port Isabel Service Processing Center and the Willacy County Detention Center, also know as Tent City, continue to rack up cases of sexual assault in the Rio Grande Valley, said Corrina Spencer-Schuerich, an attorney with the South Texas Civil Rights Project. “People are being detained indefinitely because the system, in some ways, is broken.”

On August 19, a prison guard at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center — until recently one of the nation’s only “family” prisons for detained immigrants held up recently as ICE’s “model” facility — was arrested for groping female detainees being prepared for release. In a report released last month, Human Rights Watch asserted it was “only the latest in a series of assaults, abuses, and episodes of harassment that have quietly emerged as a pattern across the rapidly expanding national detention system.”

Recent cases chronicled in the Human Rights Watch report, “Detained and At Risk,” include the arrest and sentencing of former prison guard, Robert Luis Loya, who admitted sexually abusing five detainees at Port Isabel (See “Choosing Sides,” Page 11); a Corrections Corporation of America guard who was videotaped having sexual contact with a Hutto detainee in 2007 while her child was in the cell; media interviews with detainees at the South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall alleging multiple cases of sexual abuse; a 2009 sex abuse lawsuit filed by a former detainee at Tent City in Raymondville; and as many as nine Central American children housed at Texas Sheltered Care in Nixon in 2008 who reported physical and sexual abuse.

Many who work in the field of immigration law blame chronic incarceration for many of the ongoing human-rights abuses being experienced in Texas. “You have people who have criminal backgrounds who are stuck there for very long periods of time,” said Spencer-Schuerich, “because the judge has decided that everybody who has ever done any kind of crime is a danger to community, even if that crime was a DUI, you know?”

Incarceration numbers have more than doubled since 1999, following Congressional changes to the law that required the detention of all immigrants convicted of felonies or misdemeanors and applicants for asylum. The Detention Watch Network and the Stanford Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic last month urged the Obama Administration to handle as many as possible by using alternatives to incarceration, including a case-management system similar to probation.

“By ensuring that immigrants can access appropriate case management and necessary resources, such as stable housing, medical care, and legal counsel, `alternatives to detention` increase participants’ ability to prepare their immigration cases,” said Jacqueline Esposito, policy director for Detention Watch, in a prepared statement. It’s a program that has proven successful in New Jersey, where the Department of Homeland Security has allowed 70 men to continue to work and support their families while awaiting their court appearances. To date, not one detainee has missed a court appearance, Detention Watch reports.

It’d be a welcome change for Brownsville immigration attorney Jaime Diez. “We don’t need more border patrol agents. We need to decide whether we can afford to put everybody in jail `or want to` start using common sense,” he said.

When contacted by the Current, Diez was on his way to welcome a client back into the free world after a nine-month stint for the crime of illegal re-entry as a possible non-citizen. The man’s citizenship came into question, Diez said, after federal officials began investigating the man’s mother, who was brought into the world with the assistance of midwives. In 2008, ICE and the State Department began putting border-area childbirths by midwife under the microscope (See “Midwived Texans cast into citizenship ‘black hole,’” September, 2008) after interest in decades-old cases of midwives forging documents was renewed.

The mothers’ case proved out: the son was a U.S. citizen — albeit an U.S. citizen who had just wasted nine months of his life incarcerated without cause. “And this is not the first case I have. The reality is that everything is enforcement,” Diez said. “We have a huge problem that we cannot solve by putting everybody in prison.”

Another crippling failure has to do with mental health. While Bexar County and other Texas counties brace themselves for the fallout to come from anticipated deep cuts in spending on mental health in Texas, already ranked 49th nationally, immigrants have no recourse. “Immigration courts do not have a process for mental-health incompetency. … So you have people being deported because they can’t defend themselves to countries that they don’t know,” said Spencer-Schuerich. “If somebody is so mentally ill — so mentally ill they are unable to go through the criminal process — then why are we putting them in detention and then deporting them?”

But bringing about the sorts of changes non-citizens and suspected non-citizens need is longer than a long shot, given the state of political discourse on the topic of illegal immigration, Libal said. The growing prison-industrial complex has its fans, too.

“There are lots of different interests that are involved in maintaining a vast detention system, private-prison interests for one,” Libal said. “A lot of counties now are pretty heavily invested in the detention system because they’ve issued debt to pay for it. In many ways, it’s similar to the war on drugs. Nobody wants to be seen in any way soft on immigration. … It’s like we’ve learned nothing, and all the while the private prison industry is profiting handsomely.”

While past detractors allow that Hutto has changed for the better, Libal suggests “protests, litigation, and media scrutiny” inspired ICE to affect the repair, which has included turning it into a detention center that only houses women. Yet the recent arrest suggests it’s still far from reformed. “I think it represents in many ways that ICE’s detention system is too big, too far flung, and largely unaccountable. I don’t know if the reforms can be effective at the size of ICE’s detention system. They’ve got to reduce the size.” •

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