New Karnes County Immigration Detention Facility Touted as Model for Reform

New York City – On Tuesday, February 14, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will open a new “model” detention facility in Karnes County, Texas. This facility, built and operated by Geo Group, is expected to hold up to 608 detainees. It is the first facility designed and built based on the agency’s 2009 commitment to reform the immigration detention system and shift away from its longtime reliance on jails and jail-like facilities. Human Rights First’s Ruthie Epstein will be among a delegation of NGOs to tour the facility on its opening day and hopes to see conditions that are more appropriate for the civil immigration law detainees ICE holds in its custody. “ICE has promised conditions in the new Karnes facility that are more in line with best practices in the corrections context,” notes Epstein. “Based on ICE’s reform commitment, I expect the facility to include more ‘normalized’ conditions such as privacy in toilets and showers and expanded access to outdoor recreation. These are basic dignities. We also hope to see a plan from ICE to allow detainees to move freely within the facility and its grounds, and to wear their own clothing.” In October 2011 Human Rights First released its report, “Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the US Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review.” In it were recommendations for ICE’s successful switch to this new detention model. It included the following findings:

  • More “normalized” conditions in detention are actually touted as best practice in the corrections context and can help increase safety inside a facility;
  • Despite its 2009 reform commitments, the United States continues to hold the overwhelming majority of its nearly 400,000 detained asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees in jails and jail-like facilities across the country;
  • A full 50 percent of immigration detainees are held in actual jails, a proportion that has not decreased in the past two years;
  • U.S. taxpayers will spend more than $2 billion to maintain this system in 2012 – more than 28 times ICE’s budget for more cost-effective Alternatives to Detention, which save more than $110 per detainee per day; and
  • Many of the individuals whom ICE will hold at the new facility are appropriate candidates for Alternatives to Detention or community-based release programs.

The government’s 2009 commitments followed years of findings from bipartisan groups, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Council on Foreign Relations task force on immigration policy, that jails and jail-like facilities are inappropriate and unnecessarily costly to hold asylum seekers and other civil immigration detainees. Karnes County is located one hour from San Antonio and two hours from Austin. Detainees at Karnes will reportedly have their removal cases heard via video-conference rather than in person, because there will be no immigration judges on site. Legal service providers in Austin and San Antonio are under-resourced to meet the legal needs of hundreds of new detainees in the region. “If Congress is going to fund detention and removal, they also need to provide funding for immigration judges to hear their cases – in person – and for detainees to receive basic legal information through the Legal Orientation Program at all detention facilities, including Karnes,” says Epstein. “While we welcome the development of a facility with conditions more appropriate for civil immigration detainees, ICE should not open any new facility without immigration judges in place, and adequately funded legal resources available.” For more information about Human Rights Right’s work on immigration detention reform or to arrange a time to speak with Epstein following her tour, please contact Brenda Bowser Soder at [email protected] or 202-370-3323.


Published on February 9, 2012


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