U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, led a tour this week of their new immigrant detention center in Texas. The detention center, which will be managed by Florida-based private prison industry corporation The GEO Group, has raised concerns from immigrant advocates.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the new Karnes County Civil Detention Center “is designed according to the Obama administration’s new mandates calling for greater unescorted movement and recreational opportunities in a less penal setting.”

David Shapiro, a staff attorney of the ACLU National Prison Project, tells the Florida Independent that the Obama administration “has a stated commitment to a civil system of immigration detention ” and the Karnes facility is “one of the flagship facilities of that new humane system of detention.”

“But if the [Obama] administration is serious about having a civil and humane system of detention that treats people fairly, it needs to stop relying on the private prison industry,” Shapiro adds.

Both Shapiro’s office and the Southern Poverty Law Center recently settled a case against another GEO facility for kids in Mississippi. According to Shapiro, that facility was “another abusive system for incarcerating kids.”

And in 2007, he explains, Texas state auditors touring a GEO-run facility found “atrocious and horrific conditions,” including children receiving very little education, insect infestation, and cells containing feces and urine. “And yet this is the company that is going to build a more humane system, it doesn’t make sense,” he says.

“We welcome efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to improve detention conditions, but their plan to use the Karnes facility to lock up asylum seekers and low-risk detainees is not the solution,” said Eric B. Sigmon, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service director for advocacy, in a press release issued Wednesday.

Sigmon, who visited the center on the ICE-arranged tour, said that Congress and the Obama administration should “reduce the use of immigration detention and expand alternatives to detention programs,” which would “cut costs to U.S. taxpayers.”

Unlocking Liberty, a study (.pdf) released by the  Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in October 2011 states that, “alternatives to detention (ATDs) are cheaper—they cost only $22 or less per person per day—and are more humane.” The average cost of an immigration detention bed to taxpayers is $122 per day.

“We lock up a high number of immigrant detainees at an enormous financial cost to taxpayers,” says Shapiro, “and an enormous cost to families broken apart by prolonged detention – but, really, a solution is a reduction in the number of people who we detain.”

Shapiro says that there are “a range of alternatives based on the risk assessment of the individual,” preferable to detention that impacts families and taxpayers, including electronic monitoring, or go-anywhere probation or parole.

The Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that the Karnes center “will hold nonviolent, low-risk adult men apprehended in Texas.”

The Chronicle added that detainees would have access to a full-time doctor, part-time dentist, and pharmacist.

Kathy Bird, of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, tells The Independent that, “in immigration detention, there are no enforceable standards, so in lieu of creating enforceable standards, ICE has come out with these very general terms, non-institutional clothing, people have a lot of space for recreation.”

“But people are not getting access to their families, to attorneys, to community organizations that are willing to come in and help them, so until there are no enforceable standards you’re never going to see any changes,” she says.

The GEO Group, according to Detention Watch Network, ”is the second largest [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] contractor, with seven facilities, totaling 7,183 beds and a 2009 [average daily population] of 4,948. In Texas alone, GEO’s ADP was 1,867. In 2011 GEO also broke ground on a new 600-bed facility in Karnes County Texas.”

Between 2003 and 2012, GEO contributed over $2.7 million to political campaigns, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. Almost $1.8 million of those contributions went to Florida politicians. Money in Politics also shows that over 70 percent of the contributions went to Republicans.

Roberto Lovato, the writer, and long-time immigrant rights activist say that amenities like wireless internet don’t make up for the abuses taking place in detention centers. “Having wireless is cool, but does nothing to change the abominable conditions, abuses, and suffering in those jails,” he writes, in an e-mail to the Independent. ”And then there’s the other little abomination: Obama is still jailing hundreds of thousands of innocents.”

“They can perfume the crowded rooms of inmates, but it’s still a rotten jail, the product of Obama’s rotten policies that destroy families, terrorize children and other policies that make Obama one of the worst Presidents in history with regard to immigration policy,” adds Lovato.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post the Associated Press highlighted the free Internet access, cheap overseas phone calls, and private bathrooms available at the Karnes immigration detention center that “would hardly seem like a prison if not for the electronically locking doors and reinforced-glass windows.”

“Following civil-liberties lawsuits filed on behalf of families at a crowded central Texas facility where children were held behind razor barbed-wire, the Obama administration promised three years ago to rethink the nation’s much-maligned system for jailing immigration offenders,” the Post added the AP.

Jonathan Fried, executive director of We Count! a South Florida immigrant and worker advocacy organization, writes to the Independent, “I am familiar with the [Obama] administration’s arguments. A golden cage is still a cage. Until this administration acts to end deportations of contributing members of our community and the traumatic separation of families in any meaningful way, the rest is cosmetics.”


An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to the Washington Post. That quote was instead taken from an Associated Press story, which was re-published on the Post’s website.

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