The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley is one of two family immigrant detention centers in Texas.
The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley is one of two family immigrant detention centers in Texas. Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

President Donald Trump’s administration is working to dramatically ramp up its capacity to detain immigrants — especially in Texas.

Despite protests, several facilities have opened to hold more migrant adults and children this summer, and there are proposals that would nearly double the total number of beds at authorized centers. For family detention and child-only shelters, the capacity would nearly triple.

The vast majority of the requested increase would hold children and families on two Texas military bases. The federal government has made initial requests for up to 15,500 beds at the Fort Bliss Army post in El Paso and Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, according to Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Defense.

And the state has already seen new and revived facilities pop up along the Texas-Mexico border, like the temporary tent city in Tornillo holding migrant children and a new adult facility in the Rio Grande Valley on the site of a detention center that closed years ago amid accusations of horrid conditions.

The new and prospective facilities have faced controversy — protesters, including Texas lawmakers, have rallied outside the facilities, and immigrant advocates have raised renewed criticisms over the civil detention facilities primarily being run by private prison corporations with deep pockets and powerful political connections.

“The pattern with the private prison industry and this administration is to give away contracts to companies no matter how bad they are,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an immigrants rights and anti-prison group. “You also see ... extreme problems when you rapidly expand the system like this: There’s a lack of oversight, a lack of accountability.”

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Increased detention has been a key part of Trump’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration since he took office last year. Days after his inauguration, he signed an executive order that included building more detention facilities to enable ending the “catch-and-release” policy where migrants apprehended at the border are released while they await a court date.

“We’re going to create more detention space for illegal immigrants along the southern border to make it easier and cheaper to detain them and return them to their country of origin,” said Sean Spicer, then the White House press secretary.

But the issue of detention sparked a crisis at the border this year after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April a “zero tolerance” policy promising to criminally prosecute all those who cross the border illegally, regardless of potential asylum claims. The policy led to more than 2,500 migrant children being separated from their parents at the border and placed in federal custody, some of whom have yet to be reunited.

The tent city erected to house children separated from their parents at the border in Tornillo, on June 16, 2018.
The tent city erected to house children separated from their parents at the border in Tornillo, on June 16, 2018. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

After harsh backlash from Democrats and his own party, Trump hastily reversed the practice of separating children from their parents but vowed to continue “zero tolerance” while detaining families together. Though the prosecution of migrant parents seems to be on hold and there are legal restrictions against prolonged family detention, the administration has trudged ahead to build more facilities to hold immigrants while they undergo the often-long asylum process.

Holding adults, families and children

Currently, only three facilities nationwide are authorized to detain immigrant families together: a small center in Pennsylvania and two larger sites in Texas south of San Antonio, run by private prison corporations GEO Group and CoreCivic. The Texas centers can hold about 3,500 migrants together, and advocates have reported that they are now holding reunited families set for deportation and aren’t near capacity.

The Texas Tribune's reporting on the Families Divided project is supported by the Pulitzer Center, which will also help bring discussions on this important topic to schools and universities in Texas and across the United States through its K-12 and Campus Consortium networks.

Still, the federal government has looked to drastically increase that number by seeking bed space at the military bases. Davis, the defense department spokesperson, said federal government agencies have asked the defense department to find room for up to 12,000 beds to detain families.

Under the proposal, the first 4,000 beds would be at Fort Bliss, and if they need more, Goodfellow would be targeted to house another 4,000 migrants, he said. The military has also marked Goodfellow to be able to house up to 7,500 children alone.

The necessary checks have been met to house children at Goodfellow, Davis said Wednesday morning, but the government has yet to officially request the use of the base — which is when a 45-day clock to develop a facility would start. Fort Bliss has not yet passed all its bureaucratic hurdles.

A proposed child migrant center in a converted warehouse in downtown Houston has been criticized by state and city officials.
A proposed child migrant center in a converted warehouse in downtown Houston has been criticized by state and city officials. Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

Aside from space at military bases, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which regulates child immigrant shelters, has given at least 14 facilities permission to increase their capacities as of mid-July, including a converted Walmart in Brownsville that now can house about 1,500 migrant children. Though some centers closed, the increase far outweighed the loss, and two groups are seeking to establish new shelters in the Rio Grande Valley and downtown Houston.

The increase hasn’t only been for families and children — ICE is also expanding its capacity for adults. In April, the White House greenlit a new $110 million, GEO Group-run complex in Conroe near Houston that is expected to be completed later this year. Last month, ICE opened a Raymondville lockup on the same site and with the same management — private prison company Management and Training Corporation (MTC) — as a notorious center that closed down after reports of inhumane treatment.

And in early June, ICE announced a new, temporary agreement with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to hold up to nearly 1,700 civil detainees in five federal prisons throughout the country — one of which is in El Paso.

The agencies arranged to hold up to 220 detainees at La Tuna prison’s low-security satellite campus, according to the prison bureau. In June, more than 150 detainees were held at the prison; on Wednesday, the number had dropped to 40.

The T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, an immigrant detention facility for adult women.
The T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, an immigrant detention facility for adult women. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Despite assurances that the detainees were not to be housed with federal prisoners, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees slammed the agreement in a statement, citing safety concerns for detainees and the already short-staffed guards under Trump cuts.

“At any given moment, at almost any prison in any community, you could have an accountant, teacher, or food service worker augmented to oversee hundreds of murderers and rapists,” said J. David Cox Sr. “And instead of properly funding the Bureau of Prisons to remedy the situation, this administration has jammed almost 2,000 detainees into the system.”

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Darla Cameron contributed to this report.

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(1) comment

marjorie willich

1997, the Clinton administration entered into a settlement agreement in Flores v. Reno, a lawsuit filed in federal court in California by pro-illegal immigration advocacy groups challenging the detention of juvenile aliens taken into custody by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The Clinton administration agreed to settle this litigation despite the fact the Supreme Court had upheld the Immigration and Naturalization Service regulation that provided for the release of minors only to their parents, close relatives, or legal guardians.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the Flores agreement allows the agency to detain unaccompanied minors for only “20 days before releasing them to the Department of Health and Human Services which places the minors in foster or shelter situations until they locate a sponsor.”
But in a controversial decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, the most liberal in the country, has interpreted the settlement agreement to apply to “both minors who are accompanied and unaccompanied by their parents.”
In other words, it is the 9th Circuit’s misinterpretation of the Clinton administration’s settlement agreement that doesn’t allow juvenile aliens to stay with their parents who have been detained for unlawful entry into the country.
Of course, if those parents would simply agree to return to their home countries, they would be immediately reunited with their children. So those who come here illegally are themselves to blame for their children being assigned to foster care or to another family member or sponsor who may be in the country.
The executive order signed by President Donald Trump directs the attorney general to file a request with the federal court in the Flores case to modify the settlement agreement to allow the government “to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.”
Of course, the administration’s critics know about this settlement and know it limits the ability of the administration to keep alien families together. The point of their propaganda war is to force the Trump administration to terminate its zero-tolerance policy of prosecuting all adult aliens for illegal entry, stop all detentions, and return to the “catch and release” policies of the prior administration.
The executive order did not indicate the president was in any way relaxing the zero-tolerance policy. Unfortunately, an unconfirmed news report the day after the executive order was signed cited a “senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official” as claiming the Department of Homeland Security was “suspending prosecutions of adults who are members of family units until ICE can accelerate resource capability to allow us to maintain custody.”
If this is accurate, then many illegal aliens currently in detention will be released because of a lack of adequate family detention centers.
“Catch and release” was the policy of giving illegal aliens a court date and then releasing them, a practice which enables many of them to disappear into the vast interior of this country. Such a policy is not a viable option.
As Mark Metcalf, former immigration judge, points out, for example, after 9/11 the number of aliens who failed to show up for their immigration hearings reached 58 percent in 2005 and 2006. Over the past two decades, 37 percent of all illegal aliens released pending an immigration hearing fled and never showed up for trial.
The Obama administration provided a huge incentive for illegal aliens to smuggle children across the border, since a child acted as a get-out-of-jail-free card for avoiding detention and prosecution for the adult accompanying the child. As the Department of Homeland Security correctly says, this policy “incited smugglers to place children into the hands of adult strangers so they can pose as families and be released from immigration custody after crossing the border, creating another safety issue for these children.”
In 2013, a federal judge issued a searing indictment of the Obama administration’s policy of reuniting children with their illegal alien parents in the U.S. who had paid human traffickers to smuggle the children into the U.S. and taking no action against the parents.
As Judge Andrew Hanen said in a case against a human trafficker who was caught with a 10-year-old girl, the administration’s policy was to complete “the criminal mission of individuals who are violating the border security of the United States.” He called the policy “dangerous and unconscionable” because it encourages illegal aliens to place their “minor children in perilous situations subject to the whims of evil individuals.”
Hanen listed the crimes he had seen committed against illegal aliens by traffickers, including assault, rape, kidnapping, and murder, and catalogued the “violence, extortion, forced labor, sexual assault, or prostitution” to which the aliens were subjected. Funds paid to these human traffickers by illegal aliens directly fund dangerous drug cartels such as Mexico’s Los Zetas.
Another reason for the current separation problem is illegal aliens trying to take advantage of our generous asylum law. If an alien follows the law by presenting himself at a port of entry with his family and claiming asylum, then his claim will be reviewed and his family will stay together.
It is when aliens are caught illegally crossing the border and then claim asylum that they have put themselves into the situation of being prosecuted for illegal entry. They are then separated from their children because of the Clinton-era settlement.
Something else to keep in mind when it comes to the credibility—or lack of credibility—of many asylum claims these days is that many aliens pass through countries with their own asylum laws on their way here—including Mexico. If an alien doesn’t claim asylum before he gets to the U.S., that is a pretty good sign his reason for coming to the U.S. is more about economics than asylum.
This issue of alien children being separated from their parents who are being prosecuted for illegal entry also should be kept in perspective. Our justice system doesn’t refuse to arrest, prosecute, and jail citizens when they break the law because they happen to have children.
As Peter Kirsanow, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, points out, a report from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that more than 20,000 children were placed in foster care in 2016 because of “Parent Incarceration.”
None of those protesting against the Trump administration seem concerned that 10 times more American children than the 2,000 alien children cited in the Associated Press report were separated from their parents in 2016 because of violations of the law by their parents.
As Kirsanow says, it is “regrettable” children are separated from their parents. But “people who cross the border illegally have committed a crime, and one of the consequences of being arrested and detained is, unfortunately, that their children cannot stay with them.”

It is not Trump who is responsible for this.

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