Illegal Immigrant Cases Raise Issue of Jail Space
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One problem with cracking down on illegal immigrants is that you have to do something with all the people that you catch. Faced with a shortage of detention facilities, authorities used to follow a practice commonly known as catch and release. It meant that soon after most illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico were caught, they were released with orders to show up later in court. Officials say they rarely did.
Now there's a push to build detention facilities to hold thousands of illegal immigrants until their cases are resolved. And that's leading to charges that too many people, even children, are being locked away.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: The best place to see the rapid buildup of immigration detention facilities is in South Texas. Deep in the Rio Grand Valley on an open field in the town of Raymondville, 10 huge tents sit just off the highway. Surrounded by high fencing topped with razor wire, this camp can house 2,000 detainees, both men and women. It took just 90 days to get it up and running.
KAHN: We were allowed to tour the facility but not to interview any of the detainees or workers.
(Soundbite of detention camp)
KAHN: Inside, a small TV hangs near the door of one of the tents, each one is divided into four windowless dormitories, where bunk beds, fixed metal cables and a large open stall with showers and toilets. Up to 50 detainees share each space. The majority are from Central and South America. Last summer, most would have been set free under the so-called catch and release program, but the government's ongoing crackdown on illegal immigration changed all that.
Mr. GARY MEAD (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency): One of the messages we're trying to send is, if you are here illegally, we're going to apprehend you. If we apprehend you, we will detain you in a humane and safe way, but we will detain you. This administration is committed to putting an end to illegal immigration.
KAHN: Gary Mead of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency says that message is getting across. He points to a dramatic drop in the number of illegal immigrants arrested along the southwest border. But critics say the push for mass detentions is leading to abuse. Civil liberties groups charge the new facilities are hastily built in remote areas and poorly managed by private companies, especially ones like the Raymondville camp.
Mr. TOMAS MENDEZ FLORES (Former Detainee, Raymondville Camp): That wasn't a good experience being under. And I think the worst of that facility.
KAHN: Tomas Mendez Flores was recently released from Raymondville. He said he was brought illegally to the U.S. as a toddler; now 26, Mendez never applied for legal residency. He was arrested at his job in nearby Harlingen. He says detainees were kept in the tents 23 hours a day, and Mendez recalls one day when inmates had to unplug a stopped up toilet with their hands. Plus, he says, it was always cold.
Mr. FLORES: Because I was sleeping on top and this tent - it was just cold all the time. If it's cold outside, it's going to be cold inside too.
KAHN: Mendez says the grim conditions got to one man. He describes an incident in mid-December when a Venezuelan detainee was brought back to the dorm, visibly angry about his deportation date being postponed.
Mr. FLORES: He's all pissed off and everything, trying to hurry things. And so the guy is like, no, okay, I'm going to kill myself and this and that because you guys are slow, because you guys don't know how to treat people in here and everything. No, no, okay, you can't do it. Just calm down.
KAHN: Mendez says the detainee wrapped a bed sheet around his neck, climbed on the top bunk and threatened to hang himself. Mendez says the man eventually took the sheet off but then jumped off the bed to the floor. He says a guard carried him away. ICE officials confirm there was an incident during the time Mendez was at the camp. But officials say it was a medical situation, not an attempted suicide. No one is charging that detainees are being physically abused, but immigration lawyer Jodi Goodwin says dismal conditions at the camp take their toll. She visits the Raymondville facility regularly and says she's seen firsthand how detainees don't even get the basics.
Ms. JODI GOODWIN (Attorney): I watched grown women take their hands and make a little spoon with their fingers and try to scoop up little pieces of elbow macaroni and beans because they weren't given utensils. And I asked them, do they ever give you utensils? And they responded, sometimes.
KAHN: Several former detainees also recalled to us how they'd been forced to eat with their hands. Raymondville's director, Mark Moore, says he's aware of cases when the food arrived minutes before the spoons did but says such problems are bound to happen in a new operation.
Mr. MARK MORRIS (Director, Raymondville Camp): The facility hasn't been open for a year yet. So I think that there's still a lot of things that we're working through and want to make some changes. We may make more changes.
KAHN: Calls for changes are even louder at another Texas detention facility 260 miles to the north, known as Hutto. It's a former state prison now converted to hold families, including infants and children caught illegally in the U.S.
Mr. MEAD: We're actually inside the family detention center, the family residence center, and we are walking towards our first stop.
KAHN: ICE officials gave reporters a tour of Hutto earlier this month. Once again, no interviews were allowed with detainees. Gary Mead of ICE says this was to protect their privacy.
Mr. MEAD: It's an exceptional facility in terms of the ability to provide individual care to families, and the alternatives, you know, were just not acceptable.
KAHN: Mead says before Hutto, illegal immigrants with children in tow were not put in detention. He says instead they were usually released with orders to show up later in court. Mead says they rarely did. But critics of Hutto, like Barbara Hines of the University of Texas Law School, say the new detention policy has put children in prison scrubs and locked them behind barbed wire fences.
Ms. BARBARA HINES (University of Texas Law School): This is too high a price for children to pay, whatever the government's enforcement strategy is.
KAHN: Last week, former Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner joined the ranks of those calling for the closing of Hutto. She applauded a report issued by a refugee watchdog group which alleges inhumane conditions at the facility.
Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Former Immigration Commissioner): They are shining a spotlight on a particular area of detention but one that is acutely important in terms of fairness, in terms of the values that we as a society.
KAHN: Meissner worries that the push to detain so many illegal immigrant families will lead to more problems. Former general counsel for the immigration service, David Martin, agrees. He says the stepped up detention campaign is necessary but should be done cautiously.
Mr. DAVID MARTIN (Former General Counsel, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service): If we're going to show that we're serious about enforcement, yes, we're going to have to have detention. We should just do a better job of making sure the conditions are right and we still preserve key rights.
KAHN: Meanwhile, ICE is moving forward with its plans to detain as many as 32,000 illegal immigrants by summer.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
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