Three mothers and many children to a room

Three mothers and many children to a room

Unitarian Universalists call attention to new detention centers holding hundreds of immigrant families.

Elaine McArdle
Mother and child banner at the front of a protest march

More than 500 people march outside a family detention facility in Dilley, Tex., on May 2. (© Steve Pavey/Detention Watch Network)

© Steve Pavey/Detention Watch Network


Every Friday, Felicia Kongable, a member of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Tex., makes a five-hour, round-trip drive to visit mothers held in an immigration detention center in rural Karnes County that sits amidst a spread of oil- and gas-fracking wells. The five women she visits, who have eight children among them ranging in ages from 3 to 10 years of age, have been locked up since August, and many are in despair.

“The hundreds of women in detention are in small rooms with bunk beds, usually with three mothers to a room, with their kids,” said Kongable, whose fluency in Spanish makes it easy to speak with her new friends. “The two- or three-year-olds sleep in the same beds as mom, so there’s no privacy. The little ones may be fighting and if one wakes up in the night, they all wake up. It’s that kind of stress. The 7- or 9- or 10-year-olds act out because they’re not happy there, and the kids don’t understand why they’re there and they don’t like seeing their mothers treated like prisoners.”

She and other members of First UU Church are working with other activists to shut down two family detention centers in rural Texas that imprison more than 1,000 mothers and children, mostly asylum seekers from Central America. For the Austin congregation, Mother’s Day this year is about those mothers. The Rev. Chris Jimmerson, assistant minister, will focus his Mother’s Day sermon on the women and children locked up in the centers.

“The bottom line isn’t whether or not someone deserves asylum but whether it’s fair to mothers who haven’t committed any crimes, and their children, to keep them inside a prison when they could be waiting for their court dates outside,” said Kongable. (Under U.S. law, it is not a crime, but rather a civil violation, to enter the U.S. illegally unless you’ve already been deported.)

Run by the GEO Group, a private, for-profit corporation that operates a number of prisons and detention centers across the country under contract with the government, Karnes currently holds 600 mothers and children, most who were escaping violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It has been approved to expand to 1,200.

The average age of the children in the detention centers is 6, according to Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), a national visitation group.

One of the most common complaints at Karnes is the water, which detainees can’t stand to drink. Kongable has tasted it and said, “It feels like water but it doesn’t taste like water. It tastes like chlorine and salt—it’s hideous.” Seventy-eight mothers at Karnes went on a hunger strike in April to protest conditions before being threatened with having their children taken away, Kongable added.

On May 2, more than 500 people—including about 20 UUs from the Austin area, many from First UU Church—marched in Dilley, Tex., southwest of San Antonio, where a second family detention facility opened this year. The South Texas Family Residential Center, operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), currently holds 480 women and children who crossed the border illegally, but it has the capacity for 2,400, which will make it the largest family detention center in the nation.

The Karnes and Dilley facilities are slated to make millions each year for GEO and CCA, the two biggest for-profit prison companies in the country, and activists are determined to fight them.

Protesters objected to the Obama administration’s policy of locking up mothers and their children while they await court hearings, which they say not only inflicts serious damage on the children but also wastes taxpayer money since there are cheaper, less harmful alternatives such as monitoring programs to ensure they’ll show up in court.

Until last year, the U.S. had come close to abandoning family detention centers. Then a surge of 60,000 families from Central America entered the country, many escaping gang violence and threats of death. Many were placed in a facility in Artesia, N.M., that has since shut down. The facility in Dilley was then built specifically for families, while the Karnes County Residential Center southeast of San Antonio was converted from a men’s facility to a family detention center.

Jan Meslin, a member of Tapestry, a UU congregation in Mission Viejo, Calif., traveled to Texas for the May 2 protest at Dilley. Meslin is social change development director at CIVIC, which she says has about 200 UU members around the country.

Many of the women and children who are locked up don’t speak English or even Spanish, since a number are indigenous people from Central America, but they’re grateful for visitors even if they can’t communicate easily, she said. “Most of them have just come from terrible trauma, and now they’re in prison. It’s especially hard on the kids,” said Meslin, who is also a founder of Friends of Orange County Detainees, one of the largest immigration detention visitation programs in the country.

The company that operates the Karnes facility describes conditions there as safe and comfortable. “GEO provides a safe, clean, and family friendly environment for families under the care of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” according to the facility’s website. “Residents are provided education programming, medical care, recreation, and visitation facilities.”

But advocates for the women and children disagree. “Conditions at the Dilley and Karnes facilities are entirely inappropriate for mothers and children,” Christina M. Fialho, cofounder and co-executive director of CIVIC, told UU World. “Family imprisonment not only undermines the basic family structure, but also has a devastating psychosocial impact.”

In addition to concerns about the mental health impact on children and mothers, Fialho said CIVIC has had numerous complaints about substandard medical care and inadequate food. “One mother told me in a letter that she is watching her children literally waste away in front of her eyes from not enough appropriate food, and she feels completely helpless,” Fialho said. “When you see these kids locked up in a cell with their mothers, it’s heartbreaking.”

Members of First UU in Austin have been involved in advocacy for people in local detention centers for several years.

Eight church members regularly visit detainees at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Tex., also run by CCA. Hutto used to be a family detention center, but through a broad-based advocacy effort from a number of groups, it was shut down in 2009 for that purpose, and reopened to hold women only. Advocates were hopeful that family detention was through. “It was weird—Hutto closed [for families], but then they reopened family detention at Karnes and Dilley five years later,” said Peggy Morton, chair of the church’s social action committee, who is creating a new group at her church, Inside Amigos, to focus on immigrant support and rights.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) has been supporting alternatives to immigration detention programs for years, according to Rachel Gore Freed, senior program leader for Rights at Risk 
at the UUSC. In February 2015, UUSC launched an online petition asking the Obama administration to end the detention of women and children. This petition has received over 6,000 signatures to date; the UUSC plans to deliver the petition to the White House on May 8, the Friday before Mother’s Day, Freed said.

“Children and women should not be detained when there are community-based alternatives to immigration detention and where the system has systematically not worked and created traumatic conditions for these vulnerable families,” said Freed, who visited Karnes in February to see the conditions there.

Family detention is costly, too. Housing each detainee at Dilley costs about $108,000 per year, according to the New York Times Magazine; it would save taxpayers about $250 million per year to release the families in Dilley and place them in a monitoring program to ensure they show up for court. There is little risk, immigration advocates say, because most turn up for their court hearings: a study funded by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service found that 93 percent of detainees in a monitoring program appeared for court. Texas receives more taxpayer dollars for immigration detention than any other state, according to data compiled by CIVIC.

There are hopeful signs, though, immigrant rights activists say.

On February 24, a federal judge in California issued a preliminary ruling indicating that the federal policy of detaining families violates a settlement agreement in Flores v. Meese, which set national policy for detention of minors in immigration cases: in most instances, minors must be released to a family member or other guardian rather than locked up. “That’s really hopeful and may be signaling an end to family detention as we know it,” said Fialho.

“We are hopeful that the judge’s ruling will force the administration to adhere to our laws and take into account the great needs of this at-risk population that has come to our country seeking safe haven,” added Freed.

Indeed, just a few days after the judge’s ruling, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Obama administration is re-evaluating its policy about family detention.

“On Mother’s Day we want to celebrate mothers, including those being disappeared into detention with their children,” said Fialho. “We must end these family prison camps which are creating a devastating ripple effect across families.”