A version of this story ran in the June 2015 issue.
In the last year, Texas has become the epicenter of immigrant family detention. There are now at least 3,000 beds in the state run by private for-profit prison companies devoted to family detention. We’ve been through this before. In 2010, the controversial T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor stopped housing detained immigrant families after a protracted legal battle and public outcry at claims of abuse, including children made to wear prison uniforms and threats of isolation for children who didn’t behave.
Five years later, the number of immigrant families in detention vastly outnumbers the bad old days of T. Don Hutto. In late April, three women detained with their children at the Karnes County Residential Center, a 532-bed immigrant detention facility in South Texas, filed a class-action lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group Inc., the private for-profit prison company that runs the facility. The three plaintiffs, Delmy Pineda Cruz, Polyane Soares de Olveira dos Santos and Lilian Castillo Rosado, say they were put in isolation, threatened with separation from their children and interrogated after participating in hunger strikes at Karnes.
Their pro bono lawyer, Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says the women are allowed under the First Amendment to peacefully protest. “This lawsuit is saying that the campaign of retaliation and harassment by ICE and GEO Group needs to stop,” she says. “Their rights need to be respected.”
In March, the three plaintiffs joined more than 75 other women in circulating a petition for their release. The group began a hunger strike to protest their detention in prison-like conditions. Immigration judges are issuing exorbitant detention release bonds that range from $5,000 to $15,000. (Single men in detention are typically given bonds of $1,500.) Immigrant rights advocates say it’s part of the government’s strategy to prevent another influx of Central American families seeking political asylum at the southern border.
Faced with the impossibly high bonds, the women and children have no choice but to remain locked up in Karnes or to accept deportation. The majority of the families come from three countries—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—that have some of the highest rates of violence in the world. Being locked up only exacerbates the trauma they’ve already suffered. “I’ve represented women who have been in detention for nine months already,” Natarajan says. “These women are simply saying that they’re not a threat, and that they shouldn’t be detained.”
But the women suffered a setback in May. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez denied their motion for a temporary restraining order to halt alleged retaliation against the women for participating in protests at the Karnes facility.
Rodriguez questioned whether the women, because they are undocumented, have legal standing to seek protection under the First Amendment, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Government lawyers also argued that the undocumented women didn’t have the right to seek protections under the U.S. Constitution. If the U.S. government prevails on that argument, it could set a dangerous precedent: a two-tiered society of some who are protected under the U.S. Constitution, and some who are not.