Commentary Violence

The Stories of Women, Children Stopped by U.S.-Trained Honduran Military While Fleeing Violence

Kathy Bougher

“Justice?” says one of the women who took desperate steps to leave the violence in her home country. “That’s for those who have money. For the poor, there is none.”

While Honduran women attempt to flee their country, trying to get their children out of what they have described as a war zone, elite U.S.-trained and -funded Honduran military forces are reportedly stopping them near Guatamalan border crossings to demand passports and written documentation from the children’s fathers allowing the children to leave the country. The troops have the power to turn back these women and children.

I came across this chilling news in the Los Angeles Times, as reported by Cindy Carcamo the same day I was interviewing Honduran women who had made it to a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Mexico, “La 72,” near the border with Guatemala.

La 72, named in memory of the 72 migrants massacred in northern Mexico in 2010, forms part of an extensive network of migrant shelters in Mexico, run mostly by religious groups, and located near the rail lines where Central American migrants ride freight trains north. For more than a year, La 72, one of the first stops on the route, has experienced a surge in the number of women with children and unaccompanied minors that preceded the more recent humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border.

What does the presence of these elite Honduran forces, carrying out what is called “Operation Rescue Angels,” mean for Honduran women who take desperate steps to get their children out of the violence that permeates and controls their lives in the murder capital of the world? Although the women come from all over the country, the largest numbers are from the two major cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

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As Carcamo explains, the special forces are enforcing existing law in Honduras and many other countries, which says that children must have permission from both parents and a passport to leave the country.

According to the national police, the team is primarily funded by the U.S. State Department and was trained by a U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC. The team’s aim in this operation is to stop the flow not just of unaccompanied minors, but of children who head north illegally with only one parent.

The group professes humanitarian goals, according to Carcamo’s conversation with Commissioner Miguel Martinez Madrid, a Honduran liaison to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, coordinator of the special unit and “father of two young daughters.”

“These are little angels,” Madrid told Carcamo. “They are not conscious of the risks they are taking. We are doing something good.”

Carcamo also cites Noel Hernandez, a first lieutenant with the unit, the Honduran Special Tactical Operations Group, who says, “We are saving the lives of our country’s children.”

Honduran women at La 72 told me different stories.

Gangs murdered Ana Elena’s younger brother ten years ago, and when her mother demanded an investigation she was murdered as well. The family continued to insist that authorities investigate, but nothing ever happened. Now Ana Elena is trying to get her 13-year-old daughter, Cecilia, to safety in the United States because she was receiving threats by cell phone, which included threats of abduction, assault, rape, and murder. Cecilia thinks gang members pressured other students at her middle school to pass along fellow students’ phone numbers.

I sit on chunks of cement outside the women’s dormitory at La 72 with Ana Elena, who has her arm around Cecilia’s shoulder. “I am scared,” Cecilia acknowledges, “and I’m glad to be out of Honduras.” She added that she feared being raped if she stayed.

Ana Elena left two other children at home in Honduras with her husband. Her son has been assaulted. Her other daughter hasn’t answered directly her mother’s questions about whether or not anything has happened to her.

Central American migrant women and children resting at La 72 after walking several hours from the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Central American migrant women and children resting at La 72 after walking several hours from the Mexico-Guatemala border. (Kathy Bougher)

This journey is not Ana Elena’s first attempt to provide safety for her family. About a year ago she attempted to go to the United States alone. “I wanted to make money so I could move my family to a safer place in Honduras,” she said. However, she was detained crossing the international bridge in McAllen, Texas, and deported. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave her a five-year bar, which means that if she is caught entering undocumented within five years, she will serve prison time. “But,” she emphasized, “keeping my daughter safe is my priority.”

“I’m fearful every day when I send my children to school,” she said, noting that she fears they’ll be taken by gangs. “It’s the same for all parents.”

Neither Ana Elena nor her husband have had work in Honduras. Gangs all over Honduras (as well as in much of El Salvador and Guatemala) extort impuestos de guerra, “war taxes,” from everyone—small family businesses and large companies alike—to continue operating. Those who don’t pay in cash pay with their lives. And many who do pay initially can’t afford to keep it up, so they go out of business, which increases unemployment. Ana Elena worked in a large factory that closed two years ago because the owners couldn’t pay.

“Justice?” She shrugs. “That’s for those who have money. For the poor, there is none.”

So far in their journey Ana Elena and Cecilia have been stopped by innumerable men in uniforms, gangs, and other criminals who extort money in return for allowing them to travel along a particular road or cross a border.

Operation Angel Rescue forces have been at work for about three weeks, including the time during which Ana Elena and Cecilia left Honduras, but there’s no way to know if the uniformed authorities they encountered were trained by the United Sates. Whoever the extortionists at the border were, they are part of a long list; extortion at all levels is so rampant in Honduras that it is impossible to imagine that any authorities could remain immune for long.

Ana Elena hugs her daughter tightly and strokes her curly hair. “I hope people understand that these are true stories,” she says. “I remember my mother and my brother, and I think about having to leave my other children. But, there’s no other way.”

Carcamo described how a woman and her child were turned over to governmental child welfare services. In a country where almost no institution functions without intense corruption, we must ask, who are the people running child welfare services in the country? Are they any more trustworthy than the criminals on the street? How do we know they are not connected to gangs or trafficking rings? Even if their intentions are honorable, do they have any actual services or protection to offer the mother and her child? As Human Rights Watch-Honduras has noted, “The institutions responsible for providing public security [in Honduras] continue to prove largely ineffective and remain marred by corruption and abuse.”

Both the United States and Honduran governments make evident their astonishing lack of awareness or concern about the realities poor Honduran women face when they claim that requiring documents to leave the country will protect women and children. The idea that forcing women and children who cannot produce the documents to stay in the country is safer than allowing them to leave only creates a false illusion of safety in a country that migrants describe as a war zone. In this sense, the United States is funding a type of military death squad masquerading as child welfare workers.

Central American baby traveling with her mother plays at La 72. (Kathy Bougher)

Central American baby traveling with her mother plays at La 72. (Kathy Bougher)

Even if we pretend that there is a legitimate reason to demand that mothers and children carry certain documents, finding a possibly absent, unknown, abusive, or non-cooperative father can be impossible. Coming up with the money to get a passport and then obtaining that passport from a barely functional government can be a fantasy. In addition, along the way documents get stolen, often by the same officials who demand to see them. A piece of paper does not protect a child or a mother from rape, kidnapping, or murder.

Then, what happens when a gang, uniformed or not, steals the documents? Now they possess precious, confidential information about people who are trying to escape with their lives. The migrants on the road and their relatives still at home have just fallen into even more danger.

Based on the stories migrants tell of their experiences with other authorities they encounter on their journey, it seems highly doubtful that this newest obstacle for women seeking safety really has anything to do with documents. It seems more likely that these elite forces will soon cross the line and become yet one more set of uniformed men with weapons, whether backed by the United States or not, who extort money from women, and possibly do other things that are much worse. From those stories migrants tell, it becomes obvious that virtually every Central American migrant who has reached Mexico has paid innumerable bribes at just about every point in the journey and will continue to do so all the way into the United States. These bribes, and the threats of violence and death that accompany the “war taxes,” comprise part of everyday life in Honduras and have helped solidify many women’s decision to leave.

Central American migrant women and children seek shade and a place to talk at La 72. (Kathy Bougher)

Central American migrant women and children seek shade and a place to talk at La 72. (Kathy Bougher)

Gloria, another migrant at La 72, is guarded about telling her story because she and her family decided to request asylum in Mexico due to credible fears of death if they return to Honduras. Close relatives refused to join gangs and refused to transport drugs, so the gangs threatened to kill the entire family.

She arrived in Tenosique from a large city in Honduras. She and her husband had to decide which two of their four children to bring with them. They chose their 2-month-old baby, whom she is nursing, and their 9-year-old boy. “Boys 10-years-old walk the streets with weapons killing people. That’s why we brought the 9-year-old,” she said. “I can’t let that happen.” The other two children stayed with relatives.

While leaving Honduras through Aguas Calientes, the region Carcamo describes in her LA Times article, Gloria’s family encountered uniformed authorities who demanded bribes to let them continue on their way, along with taxi drivers and bus drivers who charged four to ten times the established prices. “They take advantage of our fear, so we pay. We sold everything before we left to have money for this trip. But we arrived here to Mexico, still far from the United States, without anything because of the extortion.  Sometimes we could negotiate to lower the price, but we always had to pay,” she said.

Her priority now “is to bring my other children here. I can’t live without them. We do this for those we brought with us and those we left.”

Gloria then mentioned something that helps explain why the data on numbers of people leaving because of violence may be underreported: “Sometimes when people ask us why we came, we say ‘no work,’ because we’re afraid to tell the real story.”

It is politically inconvenient for the United States to acknowledge its responsibility for the depth of the violence, poverty, and instability in Central America, historically and more recently, such as in the 2009 coup in Honduras. Training Honduran military to stop women fleeing violence and putting women and children who reached the United States on planes and flying them back to Central America, which the the United States began doing on July 14, only inscribes another chapter in this horrific and shameful story.

The names of the women at La 72 have been changed to protect their identity.

Analysis Human Rights

Family Separation, A Natural Byproduct of the U.S. Immigration System

Tina Vasquez

There are millions of children in the United States born into households where one or more of their parents are undocumented—and thousands of these parents are deported each year.

To honor migrant mothers in detention this Mother’s Day, the immigrant rights organization CultureStrike has partnered with, NWDC Resistance, and Strong Families. Visitors to can pick out a card and write a message to a detained mother, and members of CultureStrike will deliver printed cards to detention centers nationwide.

A card from a stranger on the internet is a small gesture, but one that could have been meaningful to Monica Morales’ mother when she was detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center late last year. Morales told Rewire her mother, usually a fighter, was depressed and that her morale was at an all-time low. She’d been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the border while attempting to escape her abusive ex-husband in Mexico and the gang violence that plagued her neighborhood in Chihuahua. After being deported in 2010, she was trying to reenter the United States and reunite with her family in Amarillo, Texas, but the reunion would never happen.

As an adult, Morales is somewhat able to make sense of what occurred, but she worries about what she will tell her three young children about what has happened to their family. These are hard conversations happening all over the country, as there are millions of children in the United States born into households where one or more of their parents are undocumentedand thousands of these parents are deported each year. And, advocates say, there are few, if any, programs available to help immigrant children cope with their trauma.

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“There’s Literally Nothing We Can Do”

On any given day, there are 34,000 people in immigration detention. Prior to the “border crisis” that brought thousands of Central American women to the United States seeking asylum, the Women’s Refugee Commission reported that 10 percent of those in detention were women. Since 2009, that figure has likely increased, but the exact number is unknown.

Morales’ mother was one of them.

Though they were both located in Texas at the time, Morales said getting her mom’s phone calls from Hutto was heartbreaking and that she couldn’t have felt further away or more helpless. Morales hit her breaking point when one day, her mom called sobbing, saying she and seven other women were forced to spend the day in a room covered in urine, blood, and excrement. It was shortly after that Morales’ mom decided to participate in the hunger strike Rewire reported on earlier this year.

“My mom would always tell me that dogs at the pound are treated better than they are in Hutto and other detention centers,” Morales said. “At least at the pound, they try to help the dogs and they want them to get adopted. At places like Hutto, they don’t care what happens to you, they don’t care if you’ll get killed if you get deported. If someone is sick, they don’t care. If someone is suffering, they don’t care.”

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s oldest and largest for-profit private prison corporation, runs Hutto. The company has come under fire many times for human rights violations, including at Hutto, which was once used to detain immigrant families, including children. The Obama administration removed families from the facility in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, including, according to the Texas Observer, “accounts of children suffering psychological trauma.” In 2010, there were also multiple allegations of sexual assault at the detention center.

Morales’ mother was not aware of Hutto’s history of abuse cases, but Morales told Rewire that after the hunger strike, her mother and other women who participated believed they were being retaliated against by Hutto officers because they had brought more bad publicity to the facility. Morales’ mom was deemed by detention officers a “dangerous detainee” and had to wear a different color uniform to identify her as such, Morales said. She was also placed in solitary confinement for over a month before she was transferred to another detention facility.

Six weeks ago, Morales’ mother was deported back to Chihuahua where she must remain for 20 years, because those who have been deported once before and then attempt to reenter the United States within a period of “inadmissibility” automatically trigger a longer ban.

Advocates have told Rewire that transfers to other facilities and solitary confinement are common tactics used by both detention and ICE officers to retaliate against those who go on strike.

During the time of the hunger strike, ICE denied allegations that it was retaliating against detainees in the form of transfers and solitary confinement. A spokesperson said in a statement to Rewire that it “routinely transfers detainees to other facilities for various reasons, including bed-space availability or to provide greater access to specialized services needed by particular detainees.” The spokesperson added that Hutto “does not have solitary confinement areas.”

As Mother’s Day approaches, Morales told Rewire that her head is heavy with thoughts of her mother. The chance they will be able to see each other anytime soon is slim. If her mom attempts to reenter the United States a third time and is caught, she will be permanently barred. Morales is a DACA recipient, which means she qualified for an immigration policy put into place by President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a work permit and exemption from deportation renewable every two years (but for only as long as the DACA program is in place). It also means Morales is unable to travel outside of the United States unless there is an emergency, and for obvious reasons, those are not the conditions under which she wants to see her mother.

“We can’t see my mom for 20 years and there’s literally nothing we can do,” Morales told Rewire. “I can’t go to Mexico. The only way I can go is if something were to happen to my mom, and I pray I don’t have to go in that situation. And honestly, I would worry if the [Border Patrol] would let me return to the U.S. even though I’d have my paperwork in order. I’ve heard that happens. If you’re in my situation, everything is so risky and I can’t take those risks. I have three children. My youngest child has health issues and he needs medication. My second child suffers from tumors and he needs yearly check-ups. I can’t risk my status in the U.S. to go back.”

Like her mother, Morales is a domestic abuse survivor and she is upset by how immigration laws have impacted her family and offer little recourse to women who are attempting to escape violence. If nothing else, she said, this anger has moved her to be more politically active. Not only has she started a campaign to get Hutto shut down, but she is doing interviews and other activities to shine a light on how the U.S. immigration system further traumatizes survivors of domestic violence, the mental health issues that arise when being forced to navigate such a “horrible” system, and the family separation that has become a natural byproduct of it all.

“I don’t think Americans know what this does to our families or our communities,” Morales said. “I wonder a lot that if people knew what happened to our families, if they would even care. Moms [are] in detention for years just for trying to give their kids a better life. Parents [are] being deported and killed and their children have to be raised by other people. Do people even care?”

The Morales Family

Morales and her sister are working together to pay for bi-weekly psychiatrist sessions in Mexico for their mom, who is struggling with being separated from her only support system and who Morales strongly believes was severely traumatized by her experiences at Hutto.

“She can’t work; she can’t reintegrate herself into society. She can’t leave the house by herself; she can’t be in the house by herself. After being detained, my mom was treated so bad that that I think she started to believe she deserved it. My grandma says my mom can’t sleep at night, she paces. My grandpa asks her what’s wrong and she just says she feels like she’s suffocating. She can’t calm down. She has a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression. She’s different than she used to be,” Morales said.

The Impact of Immigration Policies on Families

Wendy Cervantes is vice president of immigration and child rights at First Focus, one of the few children’s advocacy organizations in the country to focus on immigrant families. Cervantes told Rewire that if adults, much like Morales’ mom, struggle mightily with family separation and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from trauma experienced in their countries of origin and exacerbated by navigating the U.S. immigration system, what must it be like for children?

While it’s certainly true that all immigrant families fear family separation, the challenges faced by mixed-status families like Morales’ are unique. “Mixed status” is in reference to a family comprised of people with different citizenship statuses. A parent, for example, may be undocumented, but their children are American citizens or are “DACA-mented.”

A report from Human Impact Partners, Family Unity, Family Health, found that “nationwide, an estimated 4.5 million children who are U.S. citizens by birth live in families where one or more of their parents are undocumented.” And when deportations occur on the scale that they have under the Obama administration, not only do they separate families, but they have overwhelming an effect on the health and well-being of children. Besides being more apt to suffer poverty, diminished access to food and health care, and limited educational opportunities, children suffer from fear and anxiety about the possible detainment or deportation of their family members. This leads to poor health, behavioral, and educational outcomes, and sometimes results in shorter lifespans, according to Family Unity, Family Health.

In 2012, Colorlines reported that about 90,000 undocumented parents of American citizen children were deported each year. The number has declined since then. In 2013, government data showed it was 72,410, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) only documents the number of parents with children who are citizens, not cases in which parents with undocumented children are deported.

“If a kid has to go back to a violent country they’ve never been with their deported parent or if they have to stay behind without a parent or go into the child welfare system, none of it is ideal,” Cervantes told Rewire. “The constant fear your parent will be detained or deported has very large consequences on children, who are showing signs of PTSD at younger and younger ages. The immigration system can really take a kid’s childhood away from them.”

Who Will Address Their Trauma?

The American citizen or DACA-mented children of undocumented parents suffer from things like anxiety and depression because of fears their parents will be detained or deported, Cervantes told Rewire. Furthermore, there are well over one million undocumented children in the United States and to her knowledge, there are no services provided for these children to cope with their trauma.

According to the American Psychological Association, “research indicates that unaccompanied refugee minors experience greater risk of mental illness than general populations.” Based on work she’s done with unaccompanied minors from Central America, Cervantes said the levels of PTSD in these children is “on another level,” which is part of the reason why she said she’s so appalled by the administration’s aggressive approach to the Central American asylum-seeking population, which she said is greatly lacking in empathy.

“I’ve met unaccompanied kids who have told me horrendous stories. They witness horrible things on their journey here, but they were also escaping horrible things in their country of origin. An 8-year-old witnessing a girl he knew from his neighborhood getting gang-raped as part of a gang initiation and seeing his best friend getting beheaded by a gang on his way to school,” Cervantes told Rewire. “How many years of serious counseling and professional help would it take for an adult to be OK after seeing such violence? Now consider we’re talking about a child. It’s so disturbing, and then these same kids get placed in facilities that are like jails. How are they expected to function?”

While counseling is offered in detention, those services have been highly criticized by pediatricians, therapists, and advocates as inadequate at best, especially considering that the counselors in the facilities often only speak English. It’s also important to note, Cervantes said, that these services are only offered while the child or parent is detained. Once they’re released, there isn’t a clear federal program that offer assistance to directly address their trauma.

Rather than sitting around and hoping a program will eventually be created, advocates are currently working on gathering a team of psychiatrists to visit detention centers and assess the mental health services offered. Next week, First Focus will also be launching a TV and radio campaign about family separation spanning eight states, using donated airtime valued at $1 million.

Over the years as she’s worked in immigration, Cervantes is routinely surprised by how little most Americans seem to know about how the immigration system actually works and the very real ways things like detainment and deportation rip families apart, traumatizing people of all ages. She told Rewire that she hopes the upcoming campaign humanizes the issue and helps people understand that family separation isn’t a rarity and that it happens in every community in every state.

“I’m actually very disturbed by so much of the immigration process, especially how we treat families who are seeking asylum and who have risked their lives. I have to believe that if Americans came to understand this, they’d be disturbed too,” Cervantes said. “I just wish I knew why we can’t be compassionate to people who really need our compassion.”

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include new details about the First Focus program, including that the campaign will span eight states, up from three.

Analysis Human Rights

The ‘False Choices’ of the Detention Center Debate

Tina Vasquez

While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has implemented policy changes to avoid detaining asylum seekers for long periods of time, immigrant rights advocates are raising concerns about their methods and the "false choices" the government has forced itself into.

For months now, as part of a new policy aimed at providing alternatives to detention, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released hundreds of undocumented mothers and their children from federal detention centers. Included as a condition of their release: The adult asylum seekers must wear an electronic monitor on their ankle 24 hours a day.

“[G]oing forward, ICE will generally not detain mothers with children with a credible fear of persecution in their home countries, so long as they can provide an address and are not deemed a national security or flight risk,” ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said in July after the policy changes kicked in.

For some, this move represents a step in the right direction. But advocates are raising concerns about the apparent conflict of interest associated with the company hired to check in with the released women, which has seen a number of sexual assault allegations at its detention centers—such as Karnes County Residential Center in Texas—housing the same group of women, according to an NPR report. Furthermore, immigrant rights organizations say there are other options, such as community-based alternatives, available beyond electronic ankle monitors to avoid detaining asylum seekers for long periods of time, a “highly damaging” method to their mental and physical health.

Mary Small, the policy director of Detention Watch Network, a national coalition working to expose and challenge the injustices of the U.S. immigration detention and deportation system, told Rewire that it’s important for the government not to force itself into “false choices.”

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“The choice between incarcerating asylum-seeking women or releasing asylum-seeking women in ankle shackles or with incredibly high bondsthis is not a choice the U.S. government is backed into,” Small said. “There are other options available to [the U.S. government]. We need to keep our eye on the bigger picture and not get sucked into debating whether these tiny, incremental changes are improvements. We need to focus on whether or not the government is acting appropriately in terms of its obligations to asylum seekers.”

Months before ICE’s policy change announcement, a privately run, for-profit detention facility opened in Dilley, Texas, for the express purpose of detaining 2,400 mothers and children. Allegations of medical neglect there have already surfaced.

Opening new family detention centers while purporting to no longer detain mothers and children is one of the many reasons advocates are skeptical of ICE’s new initiative.

The Dilley facility was part of Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s expanded detention of mothers and children by more than 4,000 percent, from approximately 85 detention beds to nearly 3,800 beds. This was in response to the latest surge of Central American asylum seekers, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center. The organization reports that mothers and children fleeing extreme violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will fill most of these beds. Among those who entered family detention in 2014, more than half of all children were age 6 or younger.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that new detention facilities were built to quickly deport people and deter future migrants. Now under an injunction that prohibits DHS from detaining for deterrence, the National Immigrant Justice Center reports that DHS has begun to justify family detention as a means of keeping families together, falsely implying that DHS would otherwise have no choice but to separate mothers and children.

Neither detention nor monitoring is needed, advocates say. There is a third, community-based option that has already “proven to be cost-effective and successful in ensuring participants appear for scheduled court hearings.”

For years, advocates have been asking ICE to pilot a community-based alternative to detention that would help undocumented people not only make sense of the very complicated immigration process they’re going through, but avoid ever having to see the inside of a detention center. Some of the things advocates are asking for include information about the U.S. citizenship process in different languages, resources to find an attorney, and help knowing where and when to show up for legal proceedings. Earlier this year, ICE agreed to shift its policies following findings from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, both of which paid for programs to show ICE a community-based approach could work.

In its report Locking Up Family Values, Again: The Continued Failure of Immigration Family Detention, which was written in conjunction with the Women’s Refugee Commission, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service found that family detention cannot be carried out humanely; conditions at detention centers are entirely inappropriate for mothers and children; detention traumatizes families, undermines the basic family structure, and has a devastating psycho-social impact; families are detained arbitrarily, without an individualized assessment of flight or security risk and without due consideration for placement into alternatives to detention; and family detention inherently denies due process and impedes migrants’ ability to access the immigration legal system.

ICE heeded advocates’ call to fully implement and expand alternatives to detention earlier this year. But it did so by putting out a proposal request for a company to manage the cases of the asylum seekers and oversee electronic ankle monitors, a solution that does take many families out of detention but is also raising many concerns for advocates.

In September, ICE announced the $11 million contract would be awarded to GEO Care, a subsidiary of GEO Group, which calls itself a private, correctional, detention management, and community residential re-entry services company. GEO runs 15 detention centers in six states, including the Karnes County Residential Center, created to detain the “overflow” of Central American mothers and children. The GEO contract with ICE for Karnes alone is worth $26 million annually, and as NPR reported, the government will pay GEO $56 million this year to manage ankle monitors for 10,000 immigrants, and to run telephone check-ins for 20,000 immigrants.

Last year GEO Care earned $330 million of the corporation’s $1.7 billion in revenue.

Small told Rewire that she and many other advocacy organizations have “extreme concern and skepticism” over GEO presiding over so much of ICE’s dealings and profiting so heavily from the detention system.

“When it comes to the way GEO makes profit, there are at least three layers to it. In addition to running detention facilities like Karnes and being awarded oversight over this new program, which includes management of the ankle monitors, GEO will now also run the case management services, ostensibly making them social workers. Every time the scope of surveillance has expanded for migrant communities, GEO has been by ICE’s side ready to make it happen and ready to make significant profit off of it.”

The fact that GEO employees will be operating as social workers is a major concern, advocates say, because the company has a long history of alleged abuse as it relates to inmates and detainees, including accusations of sexual abuse at Karnes and detainee deaths at the Adelanto detention center in California and the Aurora detention center in Colorado, both of which were found to be the result of medical negligence.

“According to ICE’s own rules, the contractor must have demonstrated experience doing this work. We haven’t seen proof that GEO has any experience doing social work and given GEO’s track record of abuse in its detention facilities, how does that make them an appropriate contractor for this particular contract?” Small asked.

(GEO representatives referred Rewire to ICE for comment; ICE did not respond to requests by publication.)

“Dr. Olivia Lopez, the former social worker at Karnes, resigned because she was being asked to do things that were unethical and she didn’t want to put her license at risk,” Small added, alluding to Lopez’s testimony. “In this particular instance, this is GEO doing social work and doing it so poorly a social worker felt ethically compelled to resign.”

Lopez resigned in April 2015 and in July, testified at a forum on family detention hosted by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Democrats from the House Judiciary Committee that she had been repeatedly asked to omit information from written documents, lie to federal immigration officials, and withhold information from residents about their right to grievance. Lopez said, “These institutional practices are unethical, incongruent with professional ethics, and abusive to children and their mothers.”

According to Small, ICE’s new GEO-run initiative that includes ankle monitors is being rolled out in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore region, the New York City-Newark area, Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles at the end of December. Small said GEO will sub-contract with different providers, but will be the face of the program. Whether culturally competent care, including case workers able to communicate in the asylum seekers’ language, will be taken into account is unknown. Small said this is just another of many concerns.

“All of this has to be considered if this is going to be anything other than a complete disaster,” she said. “Not that long ago, it was practice to parole asylum seekers without these conditions [ankle monitors] of their release. We are merely asking for the government to return to that practice. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but what we’re seeing is an overreaction from the government. The government needs to take a deep breath and respond in a more measured and compassionate way.”