A massive new detention facility would harm immigrant women and children and reverse administration policy on family detentions, according to a letter sent Thursday by a group of leading Senate Democrats to the Department of Homeland Security.
The letter says the senators, including Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Harry Reid (D-NV), Patty Murray (D-WA), and others, are “deeply concerned” by plans to build a massive, 2,400-bed new detention facility in Dilley, Texas, designed to hold women and children as their cases move through the immigration court system.
The facility will threaten due process, the senators said, and undermine the current practice of only detaining immigrants if they pose a flight risk or can’t find other housing.
“It appears that the dominant question officials ask before detaining these families is whether there is available bed space, and if 2,400 more beds become available, that answer will increasingly be yes,” the letter reads.
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The facility would be the largest of its kind and represent a reversal of administration policy, the senators said. The administration five years ago set aside plans to build three new family detention facilities and stopped detaining families at the Hutto facility in Texas.
That facility was the subject of a 2007 lawsuit for its allegedly poor conditions, including forcing children to wear prison uniforms and not providing them medical care or education.
And to the chagrin of human rights advocates, the contract to run the new facility was awarded to the same for-profit prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, that ran Hutto.
Advocates have collected horrific stories from other detention centers, such as one woman with diarrhea being denied the ability to go to the bathroom and being laughed at by guards after soiling herself.
“Family detention is unnecessary, it’s costly, and it’s devastating for migrant women and children,” Kimberly Inez McGuire, director of public affairs at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, told Rewire. “There are humane alternatives to detention.”
Many of the immigrants locked up in detention facilites aren’t flight or safety risks, she said, and they can often be released to family or community members and tracked.
The plans for the new facility come in the wake of a child migrant crisis, with a huge influx of unaccompanied minors fleeing oppression in Central America and coming to the United States. But it’s not just children who have been coming in this wave—it’s women and families too, and they are often fleeing brutal sexual violence and other trauma.
“Mothers and their children who have fled violence in their home countries should not be treated like criminals,” the letter from the senators said.