AUSTIN — Five years after claims of scathing human rights abuses ended the detention of immigrant families at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, federal officials last week announced a plan to build another detention center in South Texas to hold immigrant parents and children.
If the deal goes through, which officials in Frio County say is more than likely, the new site 70 miles southwest of San Antonio would be run by the same private prison company that ran the old facility northeast of Austin: Corrections Corporation of America.
Proponents of the plan say they aren’t concerned by the company’s track record and are excited by the prospects, pointing to potential job growth and economic development. But the proposal is sparking the anger and concern of lawyers and advocates who question whether the contract was open to other bidders and who say federal authorities are repeating mistakes by locking up children.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Friday that it was working to “finalize contracts with construction and service providers” and couldn’t release much information, including when the facility would open, how much it would cost or how many people it would accommodate.
But the agency plans to use 50 acres of land in the town of Dilley, next to an existing site known as Sendero Ranch, a housing community for oil workers in the Eagle Ford oil and gas shale formation. Residential buildings on the property could be used to hold up to 680 immigrants while new structures are built, according to ICE officials.
The proposal follows the opening in the past three months of similar facilities in Karnes City, where an all-male detention facility has been converted to accept more than 530 women and children, and in Artesia, N.M., where a former law enforcement training center can now hold nearly 650 detainees.
Federal authorities say the centers are meant to help keep families together while they await immigration hearings in overburdened federal courts. The spike in children entering the United States illegally — thousands of whom are fleeing drug and gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — has overwhelmed U.S. Border Patrol agents and had federal agencies scrambling to set up makeshift shelters nationwide.
Supporters of the plan say there is no better alternative to handle such an influx of minors, and the immigration detention system, they say, has undergone vast reforms to treat detainees more humanely since the failings at Hutto.
The Hutto facility, less than 35 miles outside Austin, houses only adult women after the American Civil Liberties Union and University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic sued in 2007 over what they described as deplorable conditions. Children there were not provided education or medical care, lawyers said, and were housed with their parents in cells, forced to wear prison uniforms and locked up for many hours each day.
Authorities removed families from the facility in 2009.
In a statement Friday, ICE said it now “ensures that family detention facilities operate in an open environment that includes play rooms, social workers, medical care, and classrooms with state-certified teachers and bilingual teachers.”
But human rights lawyers and advocates say that families at Karnes City and Artesia are being threatened with deportation if their children don’t behave and that parents are being forced to give traumatic asylum claims in front of their children.
“Corrections Corporation of America does not have child welfare experience, and they should not be detaining children,” said Barbara Hines, co-director of the UT immigration law clinic.
Others complained that the detention facilities are in remote locations, making it difficult for parents to access fair representation. Officials in Dilley and Frio County also said the only company they have met with in the past month has been Corrections Corporation of America, raising concerns among some that the government might have tried to circumvent fair competition regulations.
The company, which has the largest market share in the $3 billion private prison industry, has faced lawsuits in Idaho and Ohio over allegations of rampant violence, poor staffing, gang activity and contract fraud.
As officials struggle with the flow of minors, they must weigh options that are economically efficient, compassionate and humane for detainees and that comply with immigration laws, said Alonzo Pena, retired ICE deputy director. But there must be more oversight and accountability over for-profit corporations in the detention system, he said.
“After all, they are dealing with people who have not committed a crime but have entered this country without the proper documentation,” he said. “Many are seeking asylum.”