Is the Karnes Civil Detention Center the Future of Immigration Detention?

Located about an hour’s drive south from San Antonio, the Karnes County Civil Detention Center includes skylights that provide natural light, open-access courtyards, and a soccer field, volleyball court, and basketball court. Detainees have access to telephones, internet, and email.

Is this new facility the model for future “civil” immigration detention facilities that will replace the 250 jails and jail-like facilities that currently comprise the detention system?

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hopes so. On Tuesday, I and other immigrant advocates toured the center, which will house 608 non-violent immigration detainees in less-restrictive conditions of confinement. Unlike at most other facilities, immigrants detained at Karnes will have 24-hour access to certain parts of the facility, including the medical wing, and will be generally free to move around.

Medical care at Karnes seems to have been given plenty of thought. Within 12 hours of arrival, all detainees undergo medical and mental health evaluations and a chest x-ray. Detainees who put in a request for medical care will be seen within 12 hours, and a physician will be on-site every weekday.

Detainees will also have access to a psychologist, psychiatrist, and dentist, and will have access to prescription and over-the-counter medications.

It is no secret that the immigration detention system is in desperate need of reform. Every night, about 34,000 people with pending immigration claims are held in detention facilities at a cost of about $5.5 million per night.

Most of these immigrants are detained unnecessarily—many are either non-violent criminals or people who have no criminal record at all. Still others come to the US seeking asylum, only to be thrown into detention as soon as they voice their claim.

Conditions in detention centers vary greatly, and over 120 detainees have died in ICE custody since 2003.

Alternatives to detention, such as ankle monitoring bracelets, are available at a much lower cost than detention, but are used for only a fraction of the 400,000 immigrants who pass through the detention system every year.

There are no signs that Congress is planning to significantly curtail the use of immigration detention or enact strong, binding regulations to govern detention conditions. The new Karnes facility appears to be the government’s answer to immigration advocates' calls for reform.

But while the improvements at Karnes will undoubtedly make it a better facility than many others currently in use, it remains to be seen how it will work in practice when the first detainees begin to arrive next month.

And Karnes is by no means perfect. Immigrants who express a fear of returning to their countries will have asylum interviews conducted via videoconference, as will all detainees who have cases in Immigration Court. Hearings conducted over video often mean that detainees are separated from their attorneys, denying them the ability to have private consultations during the hearings. And studies have shown that Judges who conduct hearings over video often have trouble reading body language and observing the demeanor of asylum applicants—both crucial aspects of asylum hearings.

Furthermore, like approximately 40% of all immigration detention facilities, Karnes is remote. San Antonio, the closest major city, is an hour away, making it more difficult for detainees to access legal services and see their families. And Karnes will be run by the GEO Group, a for-profit prison company with an abysmal track record.

And for all its improvements, Karnes is still a jail. Heavy steel doors clang shut behind you, and movements are monitored by staff from a central control room.

ICE has said that the Karnes population will be composed of non-violent immigrants and asylum seekers—exactly the types of people who should not be detained in the first place.

But until Congress and the Obama administration come to terms with the fact that detention is a largely inappropriate and hugely expensive answer to a problem that could be solved through comprehensive immigration reform, facilities like Karnes offer a decent alternative to throwing immigrants in jail.

Indeed, about 100 feet away from Karnes sits the Karnes Correctional Center, a criminal jail also run by GEO that also houses about 300 immigration detainees with criminal convictions, most of whom will never be transferred next door to the civil detention facility.

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