In a lengthy report released Thursday, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights decried unlawful practices and abuse in the nation’s immigrant detention centers [PDF]. The commission expressed particular concern over the treatment of migrant children and families seeking refugee status, thousands of whom are being held in for-profit, prison-like facilities at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds per year.
Martin R. Castro, chairman of the USCCR, said that family detention is “clearly the issue at the forefront” of the report, but added that sexual violence and violations of the rights of LGBT detainees further justify immediate reform by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“Ultimately, a lot of this [misconduct] is driven by the for-profit aspect [of immigration detention]. We recommend that Congress undo that,” he said.
While the world’s attention has recently focused on the refugee crisis in the Maghreb and Europe, Central Americans have continued to flee widespread, drug-related violence and seek safety in the United States. Since October 2014, more than 29,400 families and 30,800 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the Southwest border [PDF]. The numbers remain significant, if smaller than they were last summer, when this mass migration — comprising more than 10,500 unaccompanied children just in June 2014 — saw its peak.
Since 2014, the federal government’s primary response to the Central American “humanitarian crisis” has been to put women, children and men coming across the border in existing immigration prisons and hastily built “family detention centers” that lack adequate medical care, food and schooling. The USCCR condemns this practice and calls for the closure of these facilities.
Over 110,000 families have been apprehended by Border Control since 2013:
In a recent speech, DHS secretary Jeh Johnson said that, prior to the recent “influx” of migrants, fewer than 100 adults with children were held in immigrant prisons. At the beginning of his first term, President Barack Obama vowed to eliminate family detention, but starting in 2014, the agency reversed course and gave contracts to private firms for some 3,000 additional family beds — mostly for women with children.
Two for-profit facilities currently house most of the families apprehended at the border: the 532-bed Karnes County Residential Center, which will soon expand to more than twice its capacity and the 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Karnes is owned by the GEO Group, a prison corporation with an expected $1.86 billion in revenue this year; Dilley is owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, which estimates $1.65 billion in revenue in 2015.
The USCCR cites a lack of transparency and accountability in how these private companies are run. For one, they are not subject to the same open records laws as federal agencies, undermining attempts to monitor their operations. And violations have been rampant: Last year, several detainees at Karnes accused GEO Group employees of sexual assault and harassment, in violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA).
Immigration attorneys, human rights groups and more than 130 members of Congress have demanded that the Karnes and Dilley detention centers be closed [PDF]. But the Obama administration, responsible for deporting a record 2 million-plus people to date, maintains that detention is necessary for public safety and to deter further arrivals from Central America — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, in particular.
DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron says that conditions have improved and that detainees are being held for shorter periods. "We are transitioning these facilities into short-term processing centers where individuals who claim fear of return to their countries can be interviewed for asylum and other humanitarian protections," she wrote in an email.
Federal officials have refused to call these migrants “refugees,” which some advocates see as an attempt to avoid the strict requirements of international law as regards people seeking asylum. “There’s probably a political calculation going on with the Obama administration right now. We know that every person [in there] has an asylum claim,” said Aseem Mehta, a fellow with the Immigrant Justice Corps program who spent several months at the Dilley prison. According to the American Bar Association [PDF], the vast majority of women and children detained at the two family detention centers in Texas were found to have a “credible fear” of returning to their home countries, a threshold step in proving a claim for asylum.
A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Christopher Boian, analogized the U.S. border crisis to that across the Atlantic. “As much as what’s happening in Europe is dramatic and capturing headlines, similar situations are taking place in other parts of the world, including Central America,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lisa De Bode