Jean Roof shares her experience after working with detained families at Karnes County Residential Center
Before arriving at the Karnes County Residential Center, I did not know if it would operate like a traditional US prison, given the fact that it houses non-citizens seeking relief—not prisoners. Much to my dismay, from the little I was permitted to see of Karnes, it operated much like standard US prisons that I have toured in the past. The women were housed behind large, metal double doors operated by a guard in a control room. One of these doors could not be opened, unless the other was shut. In addition, the bathroom located in the visitation area, where we spoke to the women and young children, did not contain a traditional glass mirror nor a lock. The visitation area was also guarded by staff members at all times.
While the prison-like appearance and operation of Karnes upset me, it did not shock me. What did shock me, however, was GEO Group’s refusal to provide the women and young children—those fleeing from persecution in their home countries—with basic necessities. The women we spoke to consistently complained that they, along with their young children, were not given adequate medical care. In fact, the medical staff frequently refused to see or provide treatment to anyone who did not have a fever above 100 degrees. In addition to insufficient medical treatment, the facility also failed to provide these families with edible food and drinkable water. Many women told us that the water was difficult to drink, because it was so highly chlorinated. One woman compared the food served by the facility to vomit. And most women said the food was so awful that their young children refused to eat. On the last day we were there, we learned that a four-year-old boy had not eaten in the preceding four days because the food upset his stomach so badly. Fortunately, we had a granola bar that we were able to give him.
While at Karnes, we met a family who fled their home country together to escape severe threats related to political persecution and family membership. They had endured great tragedy before fleeing—their husband/father was savagely executed at the direction of a prominent local politician. While the family initially attempted to relocate to another city in their home country, they were eventually found by their husband/father’s persecutors. Well-educated, the family extensively researched the asylum process. They attempted “to do everything right”: They obtained much of the evidence necessary to support their asylum claims, obtained visas to legally travel to the United States border, and presented themselves at the border.
At the border, the family was immediately detained. And since they never officially entered the United States, they were subjected to a different bond process. An immigration judge sets the bond and rules on motions for bond reduction for non-citizens who are detained after crossing the border. By contrast, ICE sets bond for those—like the family here—who present themselves at the border, never entering the United States. Before ICE makes a bond determination, they permit the non-citizen to submit documentation supporting a lower bond and conduct a parole interview. If the non-citizen is dissatisfied with ICE’s bond determination, they may submit a written request for redetermination.
After meeting this family, we learned that ICE had provided a notice regarding the parole interview and had requested that they submit supporting documentation in less than two days. Five members of the clinic immediately agreed to help the family gather and prepare the necessary documents. We worked relentlessly the following day so the family would have the documents they needed to support a lower bond determination. We brought all of the documents to Karnes for the family’s review and signature prior to ICE’s deadline. However, before we arrived, the family learned that ICE had set their bond without a proper parole interview and without considering any supporting documentation. Outraged, clinical students have continued to work with the family to have their bond reduced since returning to Tulsa.
My experience at Karnes ignited a fire within me. While I have known for some time that our immigration system is seriously flawed, I do not think I truly understood the magnitude of the problem until now. I am outraged at the treatment that these families—women, children, and babies—endure. These women come to the United States in order to flee horrific situations in their home countries under the false belief that we will accept them with open arms. Instead, they are apprehended by immigration officials, caged in temporary holding cells that are frigid and overcrowded, and taken to detention facilities where they remain for many, many months. Sadly, it does not appear that there is any end in sight. In fact, both of the Texas family detention facilities are currently expanding to make room for more women, children, and babies. Following graduation, I hope to make a difference in some way either as an immigration attorney or an advocate of legal reform.