End mass incarceration of refugees in Texas

Protestors left signs on the fence surrounding the South Texas Family Residential Center near Dilley, Texas on May 2, 2015. Photo by Ryan McCrimmon

History will harshly judge mass incarceration of Central American refugees. Texans should not stand by as it takes place in our backyard.

Imagine a young woman who is brutally raped by members of a street gang. When she seeks assistance from law enforcement, she is locked in jail.

This is the situation faced by many Central American women and children seeking refugee protection, known as asylum, in the United States. These are women and children who have suffered gang or domestic violence and are fleeing countries such as El Salvador, which has the highest murder rate in the world. They journey to the U.S. border to seek protection, only to be detained by the U.S. government.

Since 2014, the federal government has adopted a policy of mass detention of Central American refugees. In June 2016 alone, immigration authorities detained a record-breaking 37,000 people each night, many fleeing Central America and about half jailed right here in Texas.

The most dramatic expansion of detention came when two large detention centers sprung up in Texas to hold Central American families seeking asylum. The Karnes City family detention center has space to hold over 800 women and children behind fences and within cinderblock walls. The Dilley facility detains up to 2,400 women and children in trailers in a barren south Texas landscape encircled by barbed wire. Private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, run the Dilley and Karnes facilities, respectively.

The government claims the detention buildup responds to a border threat. But unlawful border crossings are at a historic low. More than 1.6 million migrants crossed the border without authorization in 2000; in 2015, the number was under 350,000. Central American women and children make up a greater proportion of recent arrivals. But their search for safety presents no threat, and their numbers are far from overwhelming — about 120,000 families and children even at the height of arrivals in 2014.

The government has systems in place to refer Central Americans arriving in the United States for evaluation of their refugee claims while releasing them to live with family around the country who can support them. In fact, before 2014, families were almost always released and the government detained far fewer Central American asylum seekers. That policy was far better.

However, the federal government has not only wrongfully insisted on treating Central Americans as a security issue rather than a refugee issue but has made the situation worse by invoking a law enforcement paradigm without applying key law enforcement lessons. As a result, Central American refugees face a system that is harsher in many ways than the criminal system.

First, there is a growing recognition of the importance of trauma-informed law enforcement work, which allows victims of violence to work effectively with the legal system. But the current immigration system treats Central American refugees as perpetrators rather than victims. Degrading and damaging detention is the U.S. response to traumatized women and children.

Second, studies have found that criminal defendants appear in court without the need for costly detention, if they receive pre-trial support services and hearing reminders. In comparison, even brief pre-trial detention correlates to less compliance given the initial negative interaction with the government. Still, Central Americans languish in immigration detention for weeks or months despite data showing that asylum seekers are likely to appear for hearings and confirming the high appearance rates achieved by community-based support programs.

Finally, experience shows that private prison companies should not operate jails. Their profit motive leads to dangerous conditions of confinement and their influence leads policymakers to expand detention even where unnecessary and unduly expensive.

The Department of Justice is ending its use of private prisons in the criminal context, and Texas shut down two CCA-operated criminal facilities. Yet, private corporations continue to run the Karnes and Dilley family detention centers and many other immigration facilities holding Central American refugees in Texas and elsewhere.

Central American refugee arrivals undoubtedly present challenges, which require complex responses, including efforts to address root causes of displacement. Resorting to mass detention is not the answer, however. It does not serve refugees or the government but instead allows private prison companies to line their pockets at taxpayer expense.

Texans of all political affiliations should speak with one voice and demand an end to shameful detention of Central American refugees on our soil. The state of Texas should certainly not license family detention centers as childcare to help the federal government continue its detention practices.

Texans should instead insist that the federal government end family detention once and for all and treat liberty as the presumption for all asylum seekers.

Denise Gilman

Director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law