A protest last June in front of the Polk detention facility (Photo by Marissa Barnett)

What Happened to Immigrant Detention Reform?


Back in 2009, the Obama administration promised reform of the massive, mostly for-profit U.S. immigrant detention system. Immigrant advocates are still waiting.

The number of deportees hasn’t diminished and private detention facilities continue to expand. Every year more than 400,000 people waiting for hearings with an immigration judge are housed in far-flung jails and grim detention centers across the nation. Many of the people in detention—sometimes for years—are legal permanent residents, asylum seekers or survivors of domestic violence or human trafficking. The detentions are costly for taxpayers and economically and emotionally ruinous for immigrant families. While languishing in lockup, detainees are sometimes subjected to physical abuse, substandard medical care and inhumane living conditions.

Last year, the nonprofit watchdog group Detention Watch Network issued a report on 10 of the most inhumane lockups in the nation, saying they should be closed immediately because of myriad human rights abuses. The group sent a letter and a copy of the report to President Obama outlining their concerns and calling for the closures. Two of the facilities are in Texas: the Houston Processing Center, a private facility owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, and the Polk County Detention Facility in Livingston operated by New Jersey-based private prison company Community Education Centers.

The 10 facilities were identified as the worst in the nation by a coalition of more than 320 immigrant advocate groups, community organizers, legal service providers and faith organizations. Bob Libal, executive director of the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, toured both detention facilities in 2012 and found detainees in crowded unsanitary cells without adequate medical care or edible food. Some detainees had been placed in solitary confinement for minor infractions.

A year has now passed and not one of the facilities has been closed. “The conditions haven’t improved at all,” Libal said. “They’ve actually gotten worse.”

The isolated Polk detention center now houses up to 400 to 500 asylum seekers from Latin America, said Libal. There are no legal services, no outside recreation. “People have to eat, sleep and use the restrooms in one enclosed area,” he said.

During the fractious debate over immigration reform in Congress, advocates like Libal feel that the crisis of mass detention of immigrants has largely been ignored. “People shouldn’t be locked up during immigration proceedings,” he said. Some alternatives to incarceration include supervised probation for immigrants waiting for their hearing dates.

To bring the problem back into the spotlight, Grassroots Leadership and the nonprofit Texans United for Families will hold a press conference Wednesday at 10 a.m. across the street from the Federal Plaza in Austin to call for the closure of the Polk County detention facility. “We want to continue to focus attention on a facility that is one of the most troubling detention centers in a very troubling immigrant detention system,” Libal said. ‘We shouldn’t have tens of thousands of people locked up every day across America.”