The recently unveiled immigrant detention center in Karnes City, Texas hardly looks like a prison at all.
By most accounts, the Karnes County Civil Detention Center is an improvement over a sprawling U.S. immigrant-detention network, plagued by often horrific conditions and lax oversight, that costs U.S. taxpayers over $2 billion a year.
Touted by the Obama administration as a flagship facility of its new “humane” detention system, the 608-bed facility for low-level immigration detainees boasts free Internet access, private bathrooms and a medical center staffed 24 hours a day. A series of low buildings hold eight-bed dorm rooms, not cells, and the view from the soccer field and basketball courts show no visible signs of razor wire or chain-linked fences. Like the detainees, guards wear casual clothing and are referred to as “resident advisors.”
Even immigrant rights advocates and human rights groups, often harshly critical of the government’s 250 immigrant detention centers, have acknowledged that Karnes is, in some ways, an advancement in the treatment of immigrant detainees.
But critics question why Karnes needs to be built at all when less expensive and proven alternatives to detention exist to deal with the same low-level detainees that occupy Karnes—refugees, asylum seekers, survivors of torture and human trafficking.
“Karnes is better but still odd because people (housed) there are candidates for cheaper ATD [Alternative to Detention] programs,” said Brittney Nystrom, director of policy and legal affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Forum.
If the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) relied on these alternatives and only detained immigrants who committed violent crimes, the U.S. government could save more than $2 billion a year, according to the National Immigration Forum.
It costs $122 a day to detain each of the roughly 34,000 unauthorized immigrants in government custody, according to Gary Mead, executive assistant director of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations. But there are a range of alternatives to detention that cost as little as $15 per day per person to monitor the same low-level detainees that are currently occupy Karnes.
Alternatives to detention fall under the second iteration of ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, or ISAP II. The program, which includes GPS-monitored ankle bracelets, 12-hour home curfews and telephonic and in-person reporting programs, has an average cost of $22 per person, per day, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The electric monitoring program, for example, costs between 30 cents and $5 a day, LIRS says, while ICE’s in-person reporting program operates daily at a cost of $12 per person.
The programs have the potential to save taxpayers millions annually. They are also more humane and have high compliance rates. In 2010, for example, government programs that provided alternatives to detention resulted in a 93.8 percent appearance rate for immigration hearings. And in 2009, the government’s electronic monitoring programs yielded a 93 percent appearance rate, while its enhanced supervision reporting program resulted in a 96 percent compliance rate. Only low-risk detainees who are not considered a flight risk or a threat to their communities can participate.
But the U.S. government has embraced alternatives to detention at a snail's pace since their inception in the 1990s. Today, while Congress faces pressure to cut detention costs at a time of historic budget constraints, it is also urged to reduce unauthorized immigration because it is politically popular.
The Karnes detention center, for example, caught the wrath of immigration opponents in Congress, notably U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, who assailed its detention standards as a “hospitality guide” during a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Holiday on Ice.”
Human rights organizations, meanwhile, are skeptical of Karnes for a different reason. They caution that the GEO Group, the private prison outfit entrusted with operating Karnes, has a long history of abuse scandals.
In 2007 the GEO Group was sued for failing to provide a mentally ill patient her prescribed medication at the South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall, Texas. One year later a local television news station uncovered widespread cases of sexual abuse by prison guards at the same facility.
“It’s undeniable that GEO has a long and troubled history with abuse and neglect in their facilities,” said Bob Libal of Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, a coalition of immigration advocacy groups. “Why ICE thinks it will be different with Karnes, I’m not sure.”
To its credit, ICE has expanded alternative to detention programs to include 23,000 immigrants in 2012, up from 18,000 last year. This year ICE requested an additional $40 million to expand these alternative programs. ICE is also asking for less money to fund its detention programs–that’s a first.
Nonetheless, immigrant advocacy groups warn that some alternatives to detention are barely disguised forms of restrictive detention for a population largely made up of asylum seekers and victims of torture and trauma.
Programs must uniformly ensure due process rights for immigrant families, critics warn. And while ICE recently began a risk assessment tool, it still needs a nationwide model that consistently determines immigrant eligibility for alternative programs. Immigrant advocacy groups also point out that there is no judicial review in place to assess the conditions of alternative programs.
“There are a whole host of problems with ISAP II,” said Katharina Obser of the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington, D.C. “It’s still very much a form of restriction on liberty.”
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