When ICE Emptied Out an All-Women Detention Center in Texas, Chaos Ensued

Women formerly detained in Karnes County Residential Center have been lost in the shuffle, facing moved or cancelled court dates, high bonds, and legal confusion.

A secured entryway is seen at the Karnes County Residential Center in 2014.
A secured entryway is seen at the Karnes County Residential Center in 2014. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Women formerly detained in Karnes County Residential Center have been lost in the shuffle, facing moved or cancelled court dates, high bonds, and legal confusion.

A secured entryway is seen at the Karnes County Residential Center in 2014.
A secured entryway is seen at the Karnes County Residential Center in 2014. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced in September that it would turn a detention center just outside of San Antonio back into a family residential center “in the near future.” The Karnes County Residential Center, a private facility run by the GEO Group, began exclusively housing adult women in April. The facility came under scrutiny after allegations that detainees at Karnes, which was largely designed for short-term family detentions, were being denied medical care.

As the facility prepared to take families again, chaos ensued. Following the September 20 announcement, reports emerged suggesting women at Karnes were being transferred to other detention centers as far as Mississippi or Louisiana. In certain cases, it appeared lawyers were not able to locate their clients.

According to an ICE spokesperson, as many as 856 women have been transferred from Karnes, which has the capacity to hold 830 people, to make space for families. That potentially hundreds of women could not be accounted for is troublesome enough. But in the days and even weeks after the transfer, lawyers representing those women, many of whom have fled gender-based violence, say the situation only worsened: clients have had their court dates moved around or even cancelled; those who might have already been released on bond are facing additional time in detention; and some cases are being assigned to less sympathetic immigration judges from other jurisdictions.

“It has been a nightmare,” said Erica Schommer, a clinical assistant professor of law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio who is representing three clients previously detained in Karnes.

On the morning following news of the transfer, Schommer says that a student in her legal clinic went to Karnes to visit a client who she discovered had been transferred with no notification. Another client, an asylum seeker from Guinea who had suffered female genital mutilation, was transferred a couple of days later to a detention center in Laredo, but Schommer and her team say ICE’s online detainee locator system still showed that the woman was held in Karnes. “I’ve been representing clients in detention my whole career and I’ve never had such trouble finding a client or figuring out what court is going to be in charge of a case,” she said.

According to ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda, all the transfers from Karnes were updated in the agency’s databases in a timely manner. “There may have been some lag time on updating the information on ICE’s online detainee locator,” Pruneda said, adding that a recent spot check of several cases showed that they were “accurately reflected in the detainee locator.”

Under its own internal guidance, ICE is encouraged to inform attorneys when their clients are being transferred and provide a telephone number for the new facility on the day of the transfer—“but in no circumstances later than twenty four (24) hours after.” When asked if the agency was still following this guidance, Pruneda said that attorneys were notified of transfers by phone and email.

Half a dozen lawyers I interviewed described a different situation. They say attempts to call ICE field officers to get more information about clients went unanswered, and they had to rely on the women themselves or their family members for transfer information. “[Even to] this day, nobody from ICE has told us where our clients are,” Schommer said.

Emily Viruet-López, a private immigration attorney in San Antonio, said some of the ten clients she had in Karnes were moved in the middle of the night and were only able to contact her days later from a different facility. “Many of them didn’t know if they were going to be sent back to their country,” Viruet-López said. “It’s as if there was a nationwide plot against these women, their families, and their attorneys.”

The confusion poses a series of logistical challenges for these women’s cases, leaving some in a legal limbo. Alejandra—her real name has been changed to protect her identity—sought safety in the United States at least four times, only to be turned away. A member of the Garifuna ethnic minority in Honduras, Alejandra, who is LGBTQ, says she was forced to marry a violent man because her family believed it would “cure” her. She eventually found her way out of the abusive home, only to be victimized by the police who threatened and beat her repeatedly.

Alejandra’s lawyer, Elizabeth Caballero, says that a date was finally set for her client to make her claims before an immigration judge. But after being transferred from Karnes to the South Texas Detention Facility in Pearsall, her November 20 hearing was cancelled. “She’s not even on the calendar anymore,” Caballero said.

In the wake of the transfers, lawyers have also struggled to figure out which court to file bond requests in. As a result, asylum seekers without criminal convictions or prior deportations, who could be released to family members while fighting their cases through the courts, are stuck in detention. “We’re sitting on bond packages that can’t be filed on behalf of clients,” said Caballero, who is currently representing eight women. “They’re in jail for no reason.”

Even when lawyers find the courts in charge of their clients’ cases, the change of jurisdiction can hurt their chances of bonding out. According to Caballero, women transferred to Mississippi are being assigned to a New York judge who is setting $15,000 or $20,000 bonds. By comparison, she says, a judge in San Antonio would not go over $10,000.

According to Pruneda, the ICE spokesperson, “there is nothing unusual about transfers from one location to another” based on reasons such as “available space, court appearances or in preparation to depart the U.S.” The goal, Pruneda said, is to “meet the agency’s detention needs while achieving the highest possible cost savings for the taxpayer.”

As the number of detainees in ICE custody has reached an all-time record of more than 50,000 people, the agency has expanded the use of private prisons and jails in Mississippi and Louisiana, the state that now holds the largest detainee population in the country apart from Texas. But facilities in the Deep South are often located in isolated rural areas where clients have little to no legal resources available to them. Mississippi doesn’t have an immigration court, which means that cases will be assigned to out-of-state judges for video hearings. Ultimately, lawyers say, by transferring asylum seekers to these facilities, ICE is making it harder for them to access justice.

“ICE is opening detention centers where beds are cheap and where communities are open to it because they want jobs,” said Schommer, who had one client transferred to Adams County Correction Facility in Mississippi. “Now we’re looking at a hearing where the judge is in New York, our client is in Mississippi, and we are in Texas.” That, of course, represents additional burden and costs to—and for—those lawyers. Instead of a one-hour drive to Karnes, it could now take four hours to get to Laredo or even an entire day to reach clients in other states.

The ongoing uncertainties also impact the detained women’s health. According to Viruet-López, her clients have recently lost significant weight, some as much as 20 or 30 pounds, as a result of stress. “These women have been detained since May or June without a proper day in court,” she said. “Their dignity has been stepped on time after time.” In many cases, these are women who have never been detained, not in the U.S., not in their home countries.

For Juan Gonzalez, an immigration attorney in San Antonio, these changes have little to do with bed space. “It’s a political issue,” Gonzalez said. “[The government] got pushback from separating families and now they’re turning it back [into family detention] because they are not letting anybody go. Everyone who comes across the river is going to be held somewhere.”

“That’s how the immigration system is built: to force people to deport themselves,” he added.

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Isabela Dias is the fall 2019 editorial fellow at the Texas Observer. She was previously a reporting fellow with Pacific Standard magazine, reporting on immigration and human rights. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, Slate, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. She's a graduate of Columbia University.


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