Under increasing pressure from human rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a slew of changes last week to the Obama administration's policy of incarcerating migrant families in prisons in South Texas and Pennsylvania, which are operated by private prison companies. Johnson said that "long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources," and promised that "the detention of families will be short-term in most cases."
Other changes promised by Johnson include offering asylum-seeking migrant families who have proven a case of "credible fear" of persecution in their home country to pay bond to secure their release. DHS has also promised additional access to legal representation and social services for all detained immigrant families.
The Obama administration has come under additional pressure to curtail its immigrant-family incarceration policies in the past week, after eight House Democrats toured the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes, Texas, and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. (The Karnes jail is operated by the private prison company GEO group; the Dilley jail is operated by the private prison company Corrections Corporation of America.)
The lawmakers called on the Obama administration to close the two jails last week, calling the conditions inside "troubling" and likening the incarcerated families there to interned Japanese-Americans who were held in camps during World War II. One Congress member captured cellphone video of mothers chanting "libertad!" and holding signs to protest their conditions during the tour of the jail.
Conditions at the Karnes prison sparked a hunger strike in April, with 78 mothers initially joining the protest to demand an end to their incarceration and to highlight the lack of adequate food and medical care for their children, who they said were losing weight as a result. The number of hunger-striking mothers later dropped to 45 after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials allegedly retaliated against some of the mothers, isolating three in a medical unit and threatening to separate many from their children.
One of the hunger-striking mothers who said she was isolated after ICE targeted her as a "ringleader" of the protest was Polyane Oliveira. She was recently released from Karnes after ICE issued her an $8,000 bond. Oliveira and two other mothers have sued ICE and the GEO Group, arguing they were unjustly retaliated against.
Oliveira's husband, who requested his name be withheld, said the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) raised the money to pay part of his wife's bond and the family received the rest of the money in donations from friends. "We didn't want to wait too much [to pay the bond], because, you know, that's what [ICE does]. They set up a bond and then take it away," he told Truthout.
Despite the fact that Oliveira faced rape and death threats, in her home country of Brazil, and that she and her 10-year-old daughter obtained "credible fear" status while incarcerated at Karnes, a Texas immigration judge has ordered that she be deported. She is appealing that decision and expects to be back in court to make her case July 10. "If they deport her, I'll pack everything up and go with the kids too," her husband told Truthout.
He said their family plans on joining a delegation to Washington, DC, with other undocumented families who've been held in such prison camps in South Texas and Pennsylvania, to meet with representatives and testify about their experiences. They also plan to meet with representatives in Boston. "We're not going to give up that easily," he said.
He thinks the main reason why DHS announced additional changes to the family incarceration policy last week was the increased pressure from lawmakers. "The Democrats are pressuring [DHS], like Rep. Luis Gutierrez," he said. "[ICE] didn't want [Oliveira] to talk with the Congress people, that's why we believe they set the bond for her. … I'm happy to hear that [DHS is] going to change the rules, and Polyane is even more happier than me."
The Obama administration has also come under pressure from federal courts. Earlier this year, a ruling limited the scope of the administration's use of immigrant-family incarceration as a deterrent to other potential migrants.
The Dilley and Karnes jails are part of an expansion of immigrant-family prison camps across South Texas, facilitated by the Obama administration as a response to the Central American migrant influx that reached its peak last summer, as more than 68,541 unaccompanied, undocumented minors crossed the Southwest border last year. Another 68,445 undocumented women traveling with children were counted. Those numbers have decreased considerably since last summer, but record numbers of unaccompanied children and family arrivals continue in 2015.
According to ICE officials, Karnes currently incarcerates 371 detainees, while the numbers at the Dilley prison have swelled in the past few weeks to 1,917 detainees, according to advocates.
Mohammad Abdollahi, who is advocacy director with RAICES, which organizes pro bono representation for asylum-seeking mothers at the Karnes jail, told Truthout that the DHS announcement is just an admission that the administration hasn't been following its own rules.
"I would not use the word 'reform' in any sense," Abdollahi said, referring to the DHS announcement of changes in family incarceration practices. "The way we've taken it is, this is the third time [DHS has said,] 'We actually mean it this time, we're going to follow our rules.'"
Abdollahi told Truthout that the only real change RAICES staffers have seen is that ICE has started granting bond to some women jailed at Karnes who are slated for deportation. (They were previously ineligible for bond.) But Abdollahi said the bonds being granted are too expensive for the families to afford, telling Truthout that the lowest bond he has seen ICE set has been $5,500, with the average bond between $10,000 and $12,000.
The DHS statement contends that ICE Director Sarah Saldaña presented DHS Secretary Johnson "with criteria for establishing a family's bond amount at a level that is reasonable and realistic, taking into account their ability to pay, while also encompassing risk of flight and public safety."
But Oliveira's husband said the bonds ICE is setting are far from reasonable or realistic for the families incarcerated at the private prison camps. "If [DHS is] going to start letting people out, they should think about letting them out by a lower bond. A $10,000 [or] $15,000 dollar bond is too much for a person in there that has nothing; they don't even have enough money on the inside to make phone calls and those things," he told Truthout, again emphasizing that the only reason why his family could pay Oliveira's bond is because they had support from RAICES and many of their friends.
The denial of bond and the issuing of high bonds may have caused at least two detainee mothers at Karnes to attempt suicide this month. Karnes staffers found 19-year-old Lilian Yamileth in a bathroom after she had cut her wrist earlier this month. Yamileth said her former partner in Honduras raped and threatened to kill her and that she fears he would kill her if she returned. She has since been deported, according to Abdollahi.
Another detainee mother attempted suicide last week after ICE issued her $8,500 bond, which, Abdollahi said, her family was unable to afford. ICE subsequently separated her from her child and isolated her in a medical unit, according to Abdollahi. She has since been released.
Abdollahi said staffing at the Dilley jail has been unable to keep pace with the growth of the population there, saying that on average, it takes two to four weeks for asylum-seeking families to have their initial "credible fear" interview, which is a critical, legal step in determining whether their asylum claim is valid.
At Dilley, Abdollahi said ICE has arbitrarily capped the capacity inside the trailer for legal staff at a maximum of 60 people. He said it's just another example of how the administration's claims that it's taking action to provide detainees with access to legal services are "a complete sham."
He said medical services at the facility are also proving to be woefully inadequate as the population swells. He said detainees have faced long lines for medical care, with some telling him that they have gotten in line at 7 am, only to finally be seen at 11 pm. If they leave the line, they are made to sign forms saying they refused medical treatment, he said.
Meanwhile, negotiations are ongoing between parties involved in a motion to enforce the settlement agreement in the Flores v. Holder case after a federal court in California granted a tentative motion to enforce the agreement, indicating that the Obama administration's policy of incarcerating families in prison-like camps that are not state-licensed, child-care facilities violates the settlement in the 2008 case and denying the government's argument to modify the settlement to allow for current family detention policies.
The Flores agreement set minimum national standards for the detention and release of children by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) or ICE, requiring the agencies to make an effort to release a detained child to a parent, close adult relative, or other guardian, if possible.
Most recently, the judge in the case threatened Monday to hold an immigration attorney in contempt of court for leaking confidential settlement documents in the case to McClatchy News.
Ranjana Natarajan, alongside her cocounsel with Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, is representing the plaintiffs in the motion, and previously told Truthout she is hopeful a final order in the case could result in the eventual winding down of the government's reliance on the use of family incarceration.
"We're hoping … that [the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)] will be more clear-headed and use these court rulings to understand that the writing is really on the wall with respect to family detention," she told Truthout.
Natarajan also told Truthout that the court has given the parties in the motion additional time to come up with a remedial plan for bringing ICE and CBP into compliance with the settlement.
"The only thing that we're crossing our fingers for is the Flores settlement, when the negotiations have finished, because it really seems like the administration has only been changing its policy - or saying they are going to change their policy - to meet the judge's sort of criticism of the Flores settlement," Abdollahi said. "The government's not going to do anything until they're forced into it."