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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, has come under fire for its three detention centers holding Central American immigrant families who are seeking asylum here. Under pressure from a federal court order, ICE is releasing mothers and children from confinement and looking for alternatives to detention. As NPR's John Burnett reports, human rights monitors are unhappy that the same for-profit prison company that locked up the families now manages their cases after release.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A dozen young Central American mothers in jeans and sneakers occupy a corner of the Greyhound station in downtown San Antonio. Strapped on their ankles is a chunky, black, blinking device about the size of an olive jar. It's an electronic monitor. The rules are you can't take it off even to shower. You have to keep it charged. You have to check in regularly with a compliance officer. And if you break any of these rules, you're in trouble. Carolina Menjivar is a 28-year-old Honduran who's here with her two sons. They were released from a detention center five hours earlier, which is when she got her ankle monitor.
CAROLINA MENJIVAR: (Through interpreter) It makes me ashamed because they only put them on criminals, and I'm not a criminal yet. It's also uncomfortable. I don't even know if I can pull my pants on over this thing.
BURNETT: These immigrant women, with their fussy kids eating French fries, have no idea that their odyssey through the American asylum process is making tens of millions of dollars in profits for a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The GEO Group is the world leader in the delivery of private correctional and detention management, community residential re-entry services.
BURNETT: Immigration and Customs Enforcement is one of GEO's major customers. The company holds immigrants at 15 detention centers in six states. The one in Karnes County, Texas, was opened especially for Central American moms and their kids. The annual contract is worth $26 million. ICE calls it a family residential center. Lawyers and human rights advocates call it a family prison, and a California federal judge agreed. In August, she ruled that the facility is not licensed to hold children and ordered ICE to release the families without unnecessary delay from Karnes County and two other detention sites. GEO declined to comment for this report, referring all inquiries to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Andrew Lorenzen-Strait is ICE deputy assistant director for enforcement and removal operations.
ANDREW LORENZEN-STRAIT: I think now we want to examine further ways in light of ongoing litigation that we can ensure compliance that can include, obviously, the use of our family residential centers but also through alternatives to detention programs such as electronic monitoring and our new case management program.
BURNETT: ICE had already been exploring alternatives to confinement for more than a decade. Now the federal court order has led to a windfall of business for GEO's nonprison subsidiary called GEO Care. Last year, GEO Care earned $330 million, about a fifth of the corporation's $1.7 billion in revenue. This year, the government will pay GEO $56 million to manage ankle monitors for 10,000 immigrants and run telephone check-ins for 20,000 immigrants. The idea is to keep track of released detainees to make sure they show up for ICE check-ins and court appearances. And there's more. In September, ICE selected GEO Care to administer a first-of-its-kind pilot project, worth $11 million, to do case management for released immigrants. We'll come back to that in a moment. All of this raises the question, is there a conflict of interest over a prison company that now does social services? Mary Small is with a watchdog group called Detention Watch Network.
MARY SMALL: Every time that there has been an expansion of a different part of the detention system, whether it's actual detention or alternative to detention, GEO has been right there ready to take advantage of it.
BURNETT: Human rights activists complain that ICE's continued reliance on GEO criminalizes the presence of asylum applicants on U.S. soil. Jonathan Ryan is director of RAICES, an organization in San Antonio that helps unauthorized immigrants.
JONATHAN RYAN: It's an ankle monitor here. It's time in detention there. It's a for-profit prison case manager who's now going to follow you on your day-to-day life. It's a continuous, pervasive pressure that is being put on these women, constantly reminding them that they are not welcome here.
BURNETT: Wait a minute. These are alternatives to detention. Isn't that what ICE critics have been asking for all along? ICE's Andrew Lorenzen-Strait says his agency is proud they've released nearly 3,000 women from confinement since July and given them ankle monitors.
LORENZEN-STRAIT: Each and every day, we do lots of releases from detention into the community. And each and every day, we take people off electronic monitoring and place them onto normal orders of supervision.
BURNETT: A 41-year-old mother from Camayagua, Honduras, named Fresvinda Ponce doesn't know when she'll get her ankle monitor off. She's living in a women's shelter in downtown Houston with her two teenage daughters while she awaits resolution of her asylum request.
FRESVINDA PONCE: (Through interpreter) Sure, it's better to have an ankle monitor. I was desperate when we were detained. Every day, my girls would come home from school and go into their room and cry. When can we leave this place, they asked. It impacted all of us. Right now I feel free, but at the same time, I think that I'm still not free. As long as I wear this shackle, I'm not happy. I feel like I'm still a prisoner.
BURNETT: Here is the newest GEO contract that immigrant advocates are buzzing about. Earlier this year, ICE sent out a request for proposals for a case manager to work with 1,500 immigrant families in select cities, just what immigrant defenders have been clamoring for. The work will involve things like explaining their legal rights and helping to enroll their kids in school. This role has traditionally been filled by groups like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The contract went to GEO Care, though ICE points out the caseworkers will continue to be community-based groups. Michelle Brane is with the Women's Refugee Commission.
MICHELLE BRANE: As you may have guessed, we were not very pleased that the contract ended up going to GEO Care, that is affiliated directly with a company that had prison ties.
BURNETT: Asked to comment on the fact that ICE keeps picking to GEO to oversee more and more immigrant services, assistant director Lorenzen-Strait had this to say.
LORENZEN-STRAIT: I can't get into how people might perceive our partners, but I can tell you that we really aim to ensure that there's a wide variety of different tools that we can use for compliance.
BURNETT: As it happens, the manager for GEO's new family case management program is a former top official in ICE's Office of Enforcement and Removal. Skeptics are watching to see if the prison company can change its stripes. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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