By Michael Barajas
Over a dozen Texas civil and immigrant rights groups this week sent a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano protesting the new privately-run immigration detention center slated for construction in Karnes County, saying the move goes against the department's promises to reform the immigrant detention system.
The new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "civil detention center" was announced in December, 2010, and contracted out to private-prison company the GEO Group (see Prisons for profit: Deaths, lawsuits don’t stop expansion of GEO immigration prisons
). The groups - including the ACLU of Texas, La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), Southwest Workers Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project - told Napolitano that they were "disappointed to learn that ICE has used its mandate for reform to construct new detention facilities for people who should be released on bond or into alternative programs." The groups said ICE should be focused on seeking "more humane, more effective, and more cost effective alternatives to detention programs."
In an effort to address years of allegations of abuse at immigrant detention centers, DHS announced a series of reforms to its immigrant detention system in 2009. Many human rights groups, however, have charged that ICE's reforms don't go far enough, saying instances of abuse still plague ICE jails.
In their letter to Napolitano, the groups wrote they were concerned with a "lack of transparency" surrounding the selection of the new detention site and the private contractor, GEO. The organizations, many of which have protested the new facility since it was announced Dec. 8, 2010, claimed some Karnes County leaders were not even aware of the new facility when contacted days before the Karnes County Commission voted to approve it. When some of the organizations were invited to an ICE roundtable in San Antonio at the end of January, the letter states, "it was clear that the decision to build the facility had been made, a contract with GEO had been signed, construction had begun, and that input on the facility would be very limited and would have no impact."
Early this month, local ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda denied any knowledge of problems at other GEO prisons in Texas, including a lawsuit filed against the company days before the new Karnes County contract was approved.
In the letter, the groups urged DHS to end the Karnes County contract with GEO.