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Study Documents Abuse at Immigrant Detention Facilities Where Families are Separated


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The stripping of undocumented children from their parents is just one of many outrages occurring at Texas detention facilities under the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, according to a new study.

In addition to the family separations now seizing headlines, immigrants at detention sites have called out the government for sexual assault, harassment, lack of legal representation and inadequate access to medical and mental health care, according Human Rights First, which interviewed 147 detainees plus attorneys, non-profit legal assistance providers, public defenders and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement representatives for its study. The group looked at conditions in Texas facilities including the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, southwest of San Antonio, and other facilities used by ICE in Houston, Conroe, Taylor, El Paso, Laredo and Sierra Blanca.

“The Trump Administration’s campaign to detain vulnerable people desperately seeking protection in the United States is part of a broader attack on the asylum and refugee systems, designed to punish people fleeing for their lives,” said Eleni Bakst, the study’s primary researcher.

The report, Ailing Justice: Texas, comes as the Trump Administration faces growing criticism for its family-separation policy, which church groups, children’s advocates and politicians decry as inhumane. Over the past few days, some Republican lawmakers have also joined the chorus.

ICE officials didn’t respond to the Current’s request for a comment. However, Trump himself seemed to double down on the policy Monday, telling reporters the United States “will not be a migrant camp” on his watch.

Human Rights First’s study lists numerous incidents of alleged abuse from facility staffers, ranging from racist comments and unjustified use of force to failure to provide medical care. At two of the facilities, immigrants reported retaliation for filing grievances, including time in solitary confinement. Women detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center near Austin reported sexual assault by facility officers.

Beyond the individual allegations of abuse, the study also found the length of the detentions — some longer than a year — violated immigrants’ rights by cutting off access to due process. Only 28 percent of Texas detainees have legal representation, according to the study.  

But even those with legal representation have been caught up in the system’s hamster wheel. For example, a Mexican journalist has been held for almost a year at the El Paso center even though his asylum request is supported by the National Press Club and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While Trump’s hardline Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems unlikely to reverse course on the zero-tolerance policy, the report makes suggestions for fixing problems at the detention centers. Those include:
  • Ending punitive detention for immigrants and focusing on less costly and more humane alternative-detention methods
  • Supporting access to legal representation for immigrants
  • Strengthening standards and oversight of detention facilities
  • Making sure detainees have adequate health care
Without some kind of federal course correction, the study paints a picture of a situation likely to grow worse as more immigrants are warehoused in prison-like conditions.

“In many Texas facilities, ICE has essentially stopped granting parole to asylum seekers, with a few exceptions, leading to unnecessary, lengthy and prolonged detention,” Bakst said. “Many Texas facilities used for immigration detention are actually criminal jails or have conditions identical to those in prisons. These difficulties, coupled with substandard medical and mental healthcare, exacerbate the suffering of traumatized individuals.”

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