Advocates Blast New Family Detention Plans

An announcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that it is closing down one migrant family detention center in New Mexico but expanding another one in neighboring Texas is drawing sharp criticism from immigrant rights activists.

On November 18, ICE announced that it would phase out its detention center at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Campus in Artesia, New Mexico, during the month of December, but eventually increase the detention capacity for adults with children at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

Some of the 420 individuals currently detained in Artesia-children along with their mothers- could be moved to Dilley and another “family residential center” in Karnes City, Texas, by next month, according to ICE.
Acting ICE Director Thomas S. Winkowski said the Dilley center will have an initial capacity of 480 residents but eventually reach a population capacity of 2,400 residents.

“These facilities help ensure timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States,” Winkowski said in a statement.

Winkowski’s agency disclosed that it stopped accepting new intakes in Artesia on November 7.

The Artesia facility was first used to detain Central American mothers and children last June, following an upsurge in border detentions of unaccompanied minors and mothers with children mainly fleeing from the violence-torn Northern Triangle of Central America.

Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos un Pueblo Unido, a statewide New Mexico labor and immigrant rights organization, cited the example of a Honduran mother who showed up in Santa Fe this past spring with a four-year-old child and a two-year-old child. Several family members had been killed back home and the woman, who is seeking U.S. political asylum, “was just lucky to not get caught up in that,” Diaz told FNS.

Diaz rated the closure of the Artesia center as a “good” move- an action which Somos and other immigrant rights organizations had demanded- but insisted that the federal government still had “no business making a make-shift detention center (Dilley) in the middle of nowhere that has no business of being a detention center.”

The longtime activist was explicit: “Jailing children is not okay…I can’t imagine it’s going to be better in Texas for the healthy development of these children.”

Silky Shah, co-director of the Detention Watch Network, likewise took issue with the policy of shutting down Artesia while expanding Dilley.

“Additionally troubling is the fact that ICE will contract with the notorious Corrections Corporation of America, a company known for its human rights violations at countless facilities, including the T. Don Hutto Detention Center, which stopped holding families after reports of the appalling treatment and conditions for children in custody,” Shah contended in a press release.

Diaz and Shah were joined in their criticisms by the American Civil Liberties Union-New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights, Grassroots Leadership and other pro-immigrant organizations.

However, ICE maintained that its “residential centers” for adults with children are an “effective and humane alternative” in keeping families united while they are either waiting for a return to their home countries or legal decisions in immigration courts.

“ICE ensures that these residential centers operate in an open environment, which includes medical care, play rooms, social workers, educational services, and access to legal counsel,” the federal agency said.

Diaz countered that detaining children is an unhealthy and trauma-producing experience, as documented by child psychologists. The New Mexico immigrant rights advocate said she was even aware of one case in which a 16-month-old infant arrived in Artesia able to walk but could not do so only two months later.

Diaz also referred to an article published earlier this month in the Texas Observer that reported the rape of an eight-year-old boy by an older boy in the Artesia facility.  An attorney for the abused boy’s family was quoted charging that local police, who were contacted by ICE, did not investigate the alleged crime.

Texas Observer reporter Melissa del Bosque noted that several Central American women at the Karnes detention center- the next possible stop for some of  the Artesia detainees- alleged that they were sexually abused by guards at the facility. The south Texas detention center is operated under contract by the GEO group, according to the Texas Observer.

In order to keep the family detention issue in the public eye, Somos and allied organizations are planning a candlelight vigil outside the Artesia detention center in southeastern New Mexico on Thursday, November 20, at 6 pm. Co-sponsors of the event include the ACLU’s Regional Center for Border Rights, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, NEA Southeast, and Detention Watch Network.

Diaz said the Artesia vigil is part of a global action organized to commemorate November 20, the United Nations’ recognized Universal Children’s Day.

“As Thanksgiving holiday approaches, we want to remind people that children and their moms are still locked up,” she added. “These folks should not be jailed, and allowed access to their families.”

-Kent Paterson

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