US Catholic Faith in Real Life

New detention center for deportees: just a better prison

Father Tom Joyce CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has unveiled a new detention center for low security detainees awaiting court cases or deportation.

In response to damning criticism last year of neglect and abuse of detainees, especially women and children and the ailing, ICE began revising the standards for detention and to seek to move them out of county jails, where they are warehoused with common criminals, or centers contracted out to private prison corporations. There have been deaths of detainees, shoddy supervision of underage detainees, and sexual harassment of women. Detainees have often been held far removed from family and their lawyers, making communications difficult.

The Obama administration promised to clean up ICE's act. It now will release a 400-plus page book on new standards to handle detainees and is about to open its first new low-security facility in Karnes County, Texas. These moves are welcomed by immigration activists as “a first step”, but the regime the new regulations sets up has been denounced by nativists, especially the chair of the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Hunt as virtually coddling criminals.

[I should admit here that I have been meeting with groups trying to stop the construction of a center similar to the one in Karnes County in Crete, Illinois, 30 miles south of Chicago.]

At the new center, as well as two more ICE is negotiating to build in Illinois and Florida, and in already established centers that are to be rehabbed, the detainees will have almost free range to roam inside, recreational and library facilities, more laundry and personal care opportunities, dormitory rooms for four to six persons, and especially telephones to communicate with lawyers and family. There will be court rooms hooked up with judges presiding in San Antonio and Houston to expedite cases. There is no razor wire or watch towers. And the detainees will not have to wear orange jumpsuits.

Yet the new facility is still a jail, despite Karnas County's soccer fields, or just a “better prison” according to the NY Times, with an up-to-date law library. Immigrant advocates argue that, if as President Barack Obama states his administration's enforcement policy is go after the criminals and scofflaws, then why have new facilities. There are alternatives to incarceration.

But there are forces that favor incarceration to make a buck, the private corporations that'll build the new facilities and run them. The federal government will pay them a per diem of hundreds of dollars for each bed occupied. They will be built to ICE's specifications by local governments with private contractors. Corporations like the leading U.S. jailer in the prison business, Correction Corporation of America (CAA), are lobbying Washington for a large share of the immigration business--even to the point of promoting more restrictive immigration legislation.More "illegals," more beds filled at their centers.

Another point made by the LA Times is that the new, benign regulations for these new centers and already existing centers look good on paper, but are not yet compulsory. That's an invitation to the abuses they are meant to correct. It's the likes of CCA that brought them on.

Karnas County is still a jail. What is needed are more compassionate alternatives like trusting the law-abiding undocumented to call in their whereabouts and show up at hearings. They are not criminals, but civil offenders. If they are flight risks, angle braces can be used; ICE already uses more than 20,000 of them. But real comprehensive immigration reform would be the best solution.