The Trouble with Karnes County’s ICE ‘Hotel’

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This week Immigration and Custom Enforcement unveiled its new 608-bed detention facility in Karnes County, 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. The facility, which will be run by the for-profit prison corporation Geo Group, is the first of several planned “civil” detention centers the Obama Administration is building for people locked up on immigration-related matters. ICE invited the media and immigrant advocacy groups to tour the $32 million facility before it opens in three weeks. Unfortunately, media coverage from mainstream news outlets largely reinforced stereotypes, and played into the hyper-politicized rhetoric surrounding immigration.

Here’s the intro for an Associated Press story published in the Washington Post:

 “With free Internet access, cheap overseas phone calls, private bathrooms and no lights-out policy, the new immigration detention center in this isolated corner of South Texas would hardly seem like a prison if not for the electronically locking doors and reinforced-glass windows.”

You’d think ICE was building a chain of La Quinta hotels instead of jails. The story went viral in the blogosphere—where it was met, unsurprisingly, with numerous comments like this one: “This is absolutely disgusting. Illegal aliens and other criminals in the lap of luxury, thanks to Obama and the ACLU. But of course, Obama and the ACLU are all for anything that weakens and subjugates America.”

Also not surprising, Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith—who’s against anything that’s soft on “illegals”—likened the administration’s new detention manual to a “hospitality guideline for illegal immigrants” in a recent statement. “The administration goes beyond common sense to accommodate illegal immigrants and treats them better than citizens in federal custody.”

After so many years of polarized debate, our congressional leaders still can’t get to a place where they can discuss how to fix the broken immigration system. Which is a shame because the antiquated, patchwork system desperately needs real reform. There have been numerous cases of abuse, neglect, suicides and even deaths in ICE facilities. In 2009, The Texas Observer reported on the death of Jose Manuel Galindo and the riot that broke out afterwards in a Texas facility run by GEO Group.

With the opening of the facility in Karnes County, the Obama administration is trying to take a step toward reform, but it’s really more of the same. The facility will be run by GEO Group, which has a long history of lawsuits, allegations of mismanagement and canceled contracts. Tens of thousands of people will still be locked up in for-profit jails, when they should be eligible for community-based alternatives where they can be monitored until their court date.

ICE already contracts with or runs approximately 250 facilities across the nation, many of which are run by for-profit prison corporations. On any given day, the United States has approximately 34,000 people in detention because of immigration-related issues. In a year, the United States incarcerates up to 400,000 people on immigration charges, costing taxpayers $2 billion annually.

Who are the people who will be locked up in this new facility in Karnes County? They’re people seeking political asylum—fleeing torture and persecution—legal immigrants who overstayed visas, and lawful permanent residents, with non-violent criminal charges, in some cases committed decades earlier.

ICE has a shiny, new building to warehouse people. But it’s not the building we should be focusing on so much as the policy that put them there. For that to happen, our political leaders first have to admit that “illegal aliens” are human beings too.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.