Despite all the negative and controversial accounts against the Karnes County Residential Center, an immigration detention center, Texas Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) has granted a temporary child care license to it.
The residential center opened in 2012 and claims to be a “model” detention center. However, it has been the center of heated immigration debate after the Obama administration renewed the mass detention of immigrant families.
It is one of the nation's largest detention centers for families caught crossing the southern U.S. border. GEO Group Inc. runs the facility for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and that itself is a cause for concern for many.
“If ever there was lipstick on a pig, this is it,” says Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of Raices, an immigrant legal services group. “If you want a child care facility, you don’t contract with a for-profit prison company.”
The 600-bed Karnes County Residential Center has increased its family detention capacity to hold thousands of immigrant women and children and provide them with education, playgrounds, food and shelter.
But all is not as it seems. The center has been accused of neglect and abuse.
DFPS itself noted several incongruities, including children living in rooms without their mother or staff members present, inefficient health practices and a list of child’s rights didn’t include “the child’s rights to be free from being threatened with the loss of placement or shelter as punishment.”
Olivia Lopez, a former Karnes employee, testified at a 2015 Judiciary Democrats’ Forum on Family Detention that she saw young children regress developmentally, detainees who were placed in isolation for speaking out and superiors who wanted a “clean paper trail” because the facility was under constant auditing.
“I walked in and thought, ‘oh my Lord, this is really a prison,'” she declared.
Leaders from nonprofits opposed to private prisons agree.
“By all reasonable measures, family detention camps are prisons. They are not child care facilities,” said Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership’s executive director.
Here’s what Wendy Wayne, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project volunteer and member of the ABA Commission on Immigration, writes about her experience:
“I have been going to jails and prisons for more than 25 years, my entire career, but I have never been in a prison complete with locked metal doors, security cameras, and a prison wall with fencing 30 feet high, but also with kids in strollers, infants, stacks of diapers, a room of clothes that includes 0-3 month onesies, and a 'yard' outfitted to include a playground. Despite what the government calls them, these are prisons, just like any prison I’ve been to throughout my career, except there are children in these. It feels so wrong.”
A group of mothers who went on hunger strike to protest against the poor conditions at the detention center were allegedly locked in a dark room.
There have also been reports of detained women being sexually abused.
The six-month license is said to enable the center to benefit mothers and children despite evidence that the facility actually provides inadequate care to immigrant women and children waiting to be processed for deportation or resettlement inside the U.S.
"Licensure of the Karnes County Residential Center ... represents an important step forward in ICE’s commitment to enhancing oversight and transparency of its family residential centers, which play an important role in maintaining the integrity of our immigration system," says Jennifer Elzea, acting press secretary office of public affairs for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.