The entrance to the 500-bed Karnes County Residential Center for detained immigrant moms and kids.
Alexa Garcia-Ditta

‘She Lives in Fear,’ Not in El Salvador, but in Texas Detention

Texas wants to license immigrant detention centers for child care, but two families say the privately run facilities aren't as safe as the state claims.


Above: The entrance to the 500-bed Karnes County Residential Center for detained immigrant moms and kids. Here, an El Salvadoran mom and daughter say they were abused by a woman housed in their room.

After surviving multiple rapes and death threats from MS-13 gang members, a 35-year-old Salvadoran mother gathered up her 12-year-old daughter and fled to the United States in hopes of seeking asylum. But when they arrived in South Texas in March, she says, they faced a new nightmare — an immigrant detention center where they experienced sexual abuse at the hands of another woman housed in the same room.

The mother, referred to as E.G.S. in court documents, and her daughter are detained in the Karnes County Residential Center, a 500-bed federal immigration detention facility run by the private prison company GEO Group, Inc. Between Karnes and a second facility, the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is currently detaining approximately 1,800 immigrant mothers and children in Texas.

But in order to comply with a federal order that children be housed in licensed residential centers, Texas must categorize these detention facilities as state child care providers. After a controversial start — Texas made its first attempts to license the facilities behind closed doors without public hearings last fall — the state issued its first child care license to the prison company that manages the Karnes facility in late April.

The entrance to the 500-bed Karnes County Residential Center for detained immigrant moms and kids.
The entrance to the 500-bed Karnes County Residential Center for detained immigrant moms and kids.  Alexa Garcia-Ditta

Now, E.G.S and another mother, along with the Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, have sued to stop the state from issuing further licenses. An Austin judge has temporarily halted the licensing until a court hearing Friday.

In documents filed in state court in Austin, E.G.S. tells a disturbing tale that raises serious questions about whether immigrant detention facilities are as safe as Texas and the federal government say they are — safe enough to house children for days and weeks at a time.

E.G.S. and her daughter, after enduring a weeks-long journey to the Texas-Mexico border, were detained at Karnes on March 24. When they arrived, the 12-year-old was ill and the family was put in isolation. Once the girl got better, she and her mother were transferred to a room with four bunk beds designed to accommodate eight people.

“My daughter started sleeping in my bed … she was too afraid to sleep alone.”

According to court documents, E.G.S. said the sexual abuse began there: Another mother in the room made sexually explicit jokes to E.G.S and her daughter and the woman exposed her breasts to the 12-year-old girl.

“This made us uncomfortable,” E.G.S. said in her sworn court statement. “Neither my daughter nor I could sleep at night. “My daughter started sleeping in my bed … she was too afraid to sleep alone.”

When she asked to be moved to another room, E.G.S. said, all she got was an “ugly” response from a detention officer who said there was nothing to be done.

In her statement, E.G.S. describes three more troubling episodes that took place over the course of five days in mid-April: The same roommate exposed herself again to the 12-year-old, approached the child as she was getting dressed after a shower, and in the third incident, touched the child’s genitals.

When the abuse escalated, E.G.S says she filed a complaint with Karnes authorities, who moved the family to another room and interviewed both E.G.S and her daughter multiple times.

But it wasn’t until the Observer contacted immigration officials for comment that E.G.S. heard anything further about her complaint — that, in fact, officials had closed the case. E.G.S.’ attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid said she had not been notified of the closure until the Observer reached out to her with the news more than two weeks after officials determined the case “lacked evidence.”

According to ICE spokesperson Nina Pruñeda, three investigating agencies — including the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and the Karnes County Sheriff’s Department — “concluded that information provided by the minor could not be corroborated, and the case lacked evidence to pursue any further action.”

Nine days after officials closed their investigation, the state cleared Karnes to operate as a child care center.

E.G.S.’ story isn’t the first time allegations of sexual abuse at Karnes have surfaced. Shortly after the facility was converted to a family detention center in 2014, the Mexican American Legal and Defense Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed complaints alleging sexual abuse and unhealthy conditions — poor food, minimal medical and mental health care and mistreatment by prison staff. MALDEF’s allegations echoed the documented human rights violations uncovered at Taylor’s T. Don Hutto Residential Center in 2007, which now houses only adult women. The federal government later said it found “no evidence” for MALDEF’s allegations of sexual abuse at Karnes.

Through an interpreter, E.G.S. told the Observer that she’s angry about what happened to her daughter.

Sexual abuse “had never happened to [my] daughter in El Salvador,” she said. E.G.S. “brought her [to the United States] to prevent that from happening. Now it’s happened here.”

DFPS spokesperson Patrick Crimmins declined to comment on the case, citing the pending lawsuit against the agency. He said he could not elaborate on DFPS’ role in the investigation, or how, or whether, it played a role in the license approval.

Julie Wimmer, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who is representing E.G.S. and her daughter, says the family must be released immediately.

“It’s inhumane to continue to detain a minor who’s a victim of sexual trauma … she is being revictimized and retraumatized,” Wimmer told the Observer. “It’s common for sexual assaults to occur in the shadows, even if there were no physical evidence or witnesses. The victim and her mother’s credible testimony should be sufficient to show that this occurred in the facility.”

The abuse alleged by E.G.S. in court documents occurred as DFPS was working to license Karnes as a state residential child care center, despite opposition from immigration advocates who raised concerns about, among other things, the potential for unchecked sexual abuse in the centers.

At roughly the same time E.G.S. and her daughter raised their concerns, the state was inspecting Karnes for — and finding — deficiencies that could make it ineligible for child care licensure. According to an initial report, inspectors found that a child had been left alone in a bedroom, and they saw unattended cleaning supplies and improper documentation of children’s medications and allergies.

A DFPS spokesperson told the Observer that they’re confident the deficiencies were resolved before the state issued the GEO Group’s child care license.

E.G.S. said she is also struggling with her asylum application because immigration officials require her to give statements — which include descriptions of multiple rapes that occurred in El Salvador — in front of her daughter.

Upon arrival in the United States, migrants sit for an initial interview with a Border Patrol agent. During E.G.S.’ interview, she told the agent that she fled her country because she was raped and struggling financially.

“He told me that he didn’t have anything to do with the problems in my country,” she wrote in a court statement. “When he told me that, I didn’t continue to try to talk with him about how I had been raped and my family threatened.”

During her next interview with an asylum officer inside Karnes a few weeks later, E.G.S. hesitated to mention her rape, she said in court documents, “because my daughter does not know what happened to me and she was present in the room.”

While the asylum officer told her she didn’t have a case, pro bono attorneys at the legal group RAICES disagree. Jonathan Ryan, executive director of RAICES, has filed multiple petitions to secure a second interview for E.G.S. so that she can tell her full story to immigration officials.

“It’s a prosecutorial system that seeks to deport as many refugees as they can before they have a chance to adjudicate their claims,” Ryan said. “What we’re asking for is not that asylum be granted, we’re just asking that this lady be allowed to ask for it.”

Ryan said women like E.G.S. shouldn’t be penalized for not immediately opening up to immigration police about sexual violence in their pasts.

“My daughter asks me, ‘When will we go?’ ‘How long will we be here?’ ‘Will we be deported?’ I don’t know what to tell her.”

“To expect that she is going to pour her heart out under a state of arrest by a man with a gun is absurd,” Ryan said. “This reinforces why women are afraid, because when they do, they’re shut down.”

For now, E.G.S and her daughter remain in Karnes, where they say they “feel like prisoners.” In a phone interview, E.G.S. said through an interpreter that her daughter’s demeanor has changed significantly: she doesn’t want to be left alone, she’s lost her appetite, and isn’t making friends.

“I worry the most for my daughter,” E.G.S. said in court documents. “She is afraid here. She lives in fear that she will be assaulted again within this place. She cannot sleep and she doesn’t want to leave my side …. My daughter asks me, ‘When will we go?’ ‘How long will we be here?’ ‘Will we be deported?’ I don’t know what to tell her.”