The Karnes County Family Residential Center outside of San Antonio was built to house families detained at the border, but in April, it switched to become a facility that housed single adult women instead. The switch was a disaster: families are typically released after soon processing, but adults are not, so Karnes, which was designed for short detentions, was now being used for long ones.
In August, volunteers for RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which has been providing pro-bono legal services at Karnes for year, began to notice that women detained at the facilities were complaining about egregious medical situations.
The women, the organization came to believe, were being denied proper medical care. They documented the stories of a woman living with cancer and not receiving treatment, as well as that of a young mother who attempted suicide after being separated from her pre-school age son.
In an effort to bring attention to the problems at Karnes, in September, RAICES began collecting female detainees’ testimonies and sharing them online, calling on ICE to #shutdownkarnes. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Llyod Doggett and Veronica Escobar all tweeted their support.
Just as the campaign was gaining traction online, ICE did something surprising: On September 30th, ICE posted a notice on its website, advising the Karnes County Family Residential Center would be converted back to a facility for families, and any adult women who had been housed there would be transferred to other detention centers. In the meantime, the note said, “additional intake at the facility has been temporarily suspended.”
Five days later, RAICES is confronting a new problem: the hundreds of women who were housed there have been scattered to detention centers across the country, and ICE won’t tell them where the women, many of whom are the organization’s clients, are.
Andrea Meza, Director of Family Detention Services for RAICES, is pouring over a giant spreadsheet. “We know where, last I checked, about 300 to 400 of the approximately 1,000 women we’ve been in contact with are, but we still don’t know where the rest of them might be.”
Technically, says Meza, there’s no legal requirement for ICE to inform detainees’ lawyers that they are being transferred. (With one exception: ICE is mandated to provide notice of transfer for Salvadorans, per the Orantes Settlement Agreement — but only Salvadorans.) Otherwise, Meza says, “There’s not really anything that requires them to give us notice as to where our clients are.”
ICE was not immediately available for comment.
The ICE Detainee Locator — the system that lists where each migrant detainee is — lists many of the women as still at Karnes, Meza says, despite the fact that both ICE and GEO Group, the private contractor that operates the facility, assurances that they are not. “We’ve tried to meet with women and ICE and GEO have told that there are no women there,” Meza says.
Of the women RAICES has been able to locate, some are being housed at a private prison in Mississippi that the Justice Department found so poorly-managed it issued a scathing 65-page report detailing its problems. The Federal Bureau of Prisons to ended its contract with the prison earlier this year, but now immigrant women are being sent there.
“Our biggest concern is for the health and safety of those women who have been transferred to detention centers, such as the Adams County Correctional Facility Mississippi.” One of the fears, for advocates like Meza, is that medical care will be even worse at these facilities. (Adams County has plagued by “significant deficiencies in correctional and health services and Spanish-speaking staffing,” according to the Justice Department, conditions which it says contributed to a deadly riot there in 2012.)
As for Karnes, the Texas facility that was emptied out after the public outcry over its failure to provide adequate medical care, it’s been converted back into a family facility, housing fathers and sons, to the dismay of RAICES. “If they couldn’t provide services to adults who are, at least compared to children, more relatively able to advocate for themselves and express what their medical needs are, I’m very concerned about the care that children will receive,” Meza says.