Family immigration detention in our country continues to skyrocket. A new facility in Dilley, Texas, will soon have the capacity to hold 2,400 children and mothers. In Karnes City, Texas, the capacity of the detention facility will double, from just over 500 to 1,040 children and mothers. Paul Erbes, LIRS Gift Officer, recently visited the Karnes facility. Three observations struck him.
I have spent several weeks in El Salvador over the past several years, so at Karnes, I felt a strong connection with the country and culture from which many of the people in the facility are fleeing. I also spent eight years as a chaplain of a juvenile detention facility that housed criminal offenders. This unavoidably provided me with a tendency to make comparisons between the different types of detention facilities. Finally, my perspective was influenced by the fact that I was touring together with a life-long member of the Karnes City community who is in the process of developing a visitation ministry to serve these families and children who are now residents in his small Texas town.
Three things struck me during my visit:
1) Facility and services – Karnes is a new facility that attempts to provide a positive, humane experience for detainees. All the basic needs appear to be met. Food seemed in good supply both in the cafeteria and in the housing pods.
I also saw many services being provided during our two hour visit. I met the chaplain who plans religious services with outside clergy. I saw a small worship service taking place in the gym with 20 or so participants deep in prayers. American Gateways was providing an orientation on legal rights for the new residents. Teachers were leading children in classroom instruction. Nurses were providing medical care. A small group of people from a Central American minority culture was gathering for communication and support.
Next to each phone available to detainees was a sign printed with “Karnes City Residential Facility,” except the word “Residential” was printed on a small piece of paper and taped over a different word. The hidden word was “detention.” This pointed to a stark reality: no matter how nice the walls are painted, and how hard the staff tries to serve these people, it is in reality a detention facility. It is a prison masquerading as a home.
2) Staff – Our tour was led by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) supervisor at the facility. He was very friendly and forthright in giving us details on problems as well as admitting he didn’t know all the answers to our questions. From Dallas, he comes down during the week and goes home on weekends. All ICE staff, he said, is from other places and much of the GEO [the contractor that runs Karnes] staff was also from other locations, which highlights the challenge for the residents to feel safe when staff changes are frequent, providing a significant barrier to establishing trust.
As we were visiting one of the residential rooms, a small child about two years old came over to give me his toy. As a two-year-old will do, he then took it back, and gave it to me again, and took it back. Then he moved on to our tour guide standing next to me and handed it to him. The guide seemed a bit uncomfortable with this and the boy then went back to his mother. Clearly, relating to the residents is not part of his job. As much as they want to describe it as residential, Karnes is an institution run by a prison corporation.
3) Residents – A couple days after the tour I was finally able to identify what was gnawing at my conscience about this tour, especially in comparison to my experience at juvenile detention facilities.
First, the residents at this facility are victims, not criminals. They have not been convicted of a serious crime and sentenced to a specific length of time for rehabilitation or punishment. They are just the opposite: they are victims of serious crimes whose only recourse for survival for themselves and their children was to flee for safety.
Second, these are families. These are mothers following the basic instinct to protect their children in the only way they can see, by escaping violence.
The third major difference is the presence of hope. The vast majority of offenders in U.S. prisons have a plan for release. They know how long their sentence is, what issues they need to work on, when they are getting out and how they can impact that release date. But the women and children in this facility live with fear that is exacerbated by the fact that they are completely powerless over their future. They don’t know if they will be sent back to the violence they tried to escape and possibly face even greater violence as a result of running away. They don’t know if this prison will be their home, if they can reconcile with family members or spouses or if they will be able to give their children a different kind of life. This absence of hope and palpable fear can be an incredibly destructive force.
Calls to Action
Give Voice to the Victims – These women and children are the least among “the least of these” that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of Matthew. They are the most powerless people living in this country and among the most powerless in the world. They have no power over their future, their children’s future. They have little voice economically, politically, legally and socially. We have the responsibility to speak for them and to leverage power on their behalf.
Advocate for Closure – As we have done in the past, we need to redouble our efforts toward advocating for closure of family detention facilities. They are inhumane, unjust, and destructive to children and families. Click here to visit LIRS’s Action Center and send a message to your representative.
Alternatives to Detention – LIRS together with several other national agencies have a successful, effective, and humane model for community placement that is also much more cost-effective. In the current political climate, I see our strongest argument being the economic one.
To learn more about family immigration detention, read LIRS’s report, Locking Up Family Values, Again.
Photo credit: Liz Sweet