Immigration agency plans new family detention centers
Los Angeles Times
May 18, 2008
The federal ICE, which already runs two such
facilities, is taking bids for as many as
three more. Critics say detaining families
is punitive and unnecessary.
The federal government is accepting bids for
up to three new family detention centers
that would house as many as 600 men, women
and children fighting deportation cases.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a
call for proposals last month and set June
16 as the deadline. New facilities are being
considered on both coasts and on the
Southwestern border. The agency calls for
minimum-security residential facilities that
would provide a "least restrictive,
nonsecure setting" and provide schooling for
children, recreational activities and access
to religious services.
Family detention has been condemned by human rights groups and immigrant
rights organizations as punitive and unnecessary. But immigration authorities
said it ensures that immigrants show up for their court hearings and leave the
country when ordered deported.
"Family detention has had the desired impact," ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel
said. "We don't see as many families coming across the border. That automatic
pass is no longer there."
There are currently two family facilities -- a former nursing home in
Pennsylvania and a former prison in Texas. The T. Don Hutto detention center in
Taylor, Texas, opened in 2006 and faced protests and lawsuits within the year
charging that the children were living in substandard conditions. A settlement
resulted in changes in how the children are treated.
New facilities would allow the government more flexibility and enable the agency
to keep families together, Nantel said. In Los Angeles this week, three illegal
immigrant mothers and their toddlers, including one American child, were among
about 60 people discovered at a drop house used by smugglers. Because there is
no family facility nearby, the women and children are being housed in a private
The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the proposed plan to open new
family detention centers.
"After the horrible conditions that were revealed at the Hutto facility, it is
very disappointing that the government appears to want to produce more
immigration prisons for families and children," said Ahilan Arulanantham, a
staff attorney at the Southern California office.
Arulanantham said most families do not pose a safety or flight risk and should
not be detained. Instead, he said, they should post bonds, wear electronic
monitors or be part of an intensive supervision program.
"There are other ways to deter illegal immigration without imprisoning
children," he said. "This shows that we have become addicted to incarceration as
a method to solving our problems, which it is obviously not."
In extreme cases, Arulanantham said, he could see families being housed in some
sort of halfway house, but not a former prison run by a private prison company.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to review the proposals and make a
decision within several months, Nantel said. The bids could come from county
governments or private companies. The facilities would house up to 200 people
each, about 150 juveniles and 50 adults. Authorities estimate detainees would be
kept at the center for between 20 and 30 days.
The proposal calls for minimal security facilities and refers to the centers as
residential family shelters, but says the contractor should structure programs
"designed to prevent escapes" and should provide a plan that "monitors resident
movement and physically counts residents." Nobody with a criminal record would
Corrections Corp. of America senior vice president Damon Hininger said he was
aware of the request for proposals and that the company was "taking a look at
it." The company already runs several immigration detention centers, including
Hutto has 450 beds, and as of last week there were about 150 people being held
in family detention there. If new facilities are built, Nantel said the agency
would consider transferring the families out of Hutto and using it as an adult
immigration detention center.
"Running a residential facility in what was a former prison, that was a
challenge," she said. "There have been lessons learned out of Hutto."
When the center opened, children were given hospital scrubs to wear, forbidden
to have toys and allowed only one hour of recreation per day, attorneys said. As
a result of the settlement, children are allowed to wear pajamas, move freely
around the center and bring toys into their rooms. There also have been changes
made to the facility, including adding individual bathrooms, adding murals and
replacing metal doors.
Given the national security goals of the Department of Homeland Security,
advocates said they are skeptical about future family centers.
"They really do have this penal system model in their heads," said Andrea Black,
coordinator of Detention Watch Network, a coalition advocating reform of
immigration detention and deportation. "I think it's going to be challenging for
them to actually be able to run a family facility that is nonpunitive given
their current philosophy and practices."
The need to imprison families stems from the presence of so many illegal
families sneaking across the border or hiding in the United States, said Mark
Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit
group that advocates a reduction in the number of immigrants.
"This is really recognizing the realities of the illegal alien population," he
said. "They used to let everybody out and trust them to come back. That hasn't
worked out, to say the least. This is simply the pendulum moving back the other