Border Policy's Success Strains Resources

About 2,000 illegal immigrants are being held in this detention facility in South Texas, awaiting deportation to their home countries. Some may wait months or years.
About 2,000 illegal immigrants are being held in this detention facility in South Texas, awaiting deportation to their home countries. Some may wait months or years. (By Kirsten Luce For The Washington Post)

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By Spencer S. Hsu and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 2, 2007

RAYMONDVILLE, Tex. -- Ringed by barbed wire, a futuristic tent city rises from the Rio Grande Valley in the remote southern tip of Texas, the largest camp in a federal detention system rapidly gearing up to keep pace with Washington's increasing demand for stronger enforcement of immigration laws.

About 2,000 illegal immigrants, part of a record 26,500 held across the United States by federal authorities, will call the 10 giant tents home for weeks, months and perhaps years before they are removed from the United States and sent back to their home countries.

The $65 million tent city, built hastily last summer between a federal prison and a county jail, marks both the success and the limits of the government's new policy of holding captured non-Mexicans until they are sent home. Previously, most such detainees were released into the United States before hearings, and a majority simply disappeared.

The new policy has led to a dramatic decline in border crossings by non-Mexicans, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

But civil liberties and immigration law groups allege that out of sight, the system is bursting at the seams. In the Texas facility, they say, illegal immigrants are confined 23 hours a day in windowless tents made of a Kevlar-like material, often with insufficient food, clothing, medical care and access to telephones. Many are transferred from the East Coast, 1,500 miles from relatives and lawyers, virtually cutting off access to counsel.

"I call it 'Ritmo' -- like Gitmo, but it's in Raymondville," said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer from nearby Harlingen.

An inspector general's report last month on a sampling of five U.S. immigration detention facilities found inhumane and unsafe conditions, including inadequate health care, the presence of vermin, limited access to clean underwear and undercooked poultry. Although ICE standards require that immigrants have access to phones and pro bono law offices, investigators found phones missing, not working or connected to non-working numbers.

With roughly 1.6 million illegal immigrants in some stage of immigration proceedings, ICE holds more inmates a night than Clarion hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines.

Gary Mead, assistant director of ICE detention and removal operations, said the agency is proud of its record, calling Raymondville "a modern, clean facility" that meets federal standards -- "which we believe are among the highest you'll find anywhere." Mead added: "We think the conditions of confinement there are both humane and consistent with all the rights they should be entitled to."

Despite its spartan conditions, the facility in Willacy County, 260 miles south of Austin, is a key to President Bush's drive to create a channel for temporary foreign workers and a path toward legalization for as many as 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

To do so, the government must convince skeptics that it can credibly enforce laws aimed at illegal immigrants and their employers, and can hold and deport those caught by the U.S. Border Patrol. At the same time, the administration and its allies argue that even additional detention beds will be overwhelmed without new channels for legal immigration.

Accordingly, the United States has embarked on a huge prison building and contracting campaign, increasing the number of illegal immigrants detained from 19,718 a day in 2005 to about 26,500 now, and a projected 32,000 this summer.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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