As Harvey, a dangerous, category 3 hurricane, approaches the Texas coast, residents are fleeing the area, but there are some who have no choice in being able to evacuate: Undocumented immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.
A handful of immigrant detention centers dot the Texas coast. One facility, the Port Isabel Service Detention Center, which can hold up to 700 detainees, is operated by ICE, while the others in the area—Brooks County Detention Center and the Karnes County Residential Center, which is nearly 100 miles inland, but expected to feel the effects—are all operated by a private company advocates refer to as “deadly.” Brooks County Detention Center has 652 beds, and Karnes County Residential Center has 532.
GEO Group, the largest private prison company in the country, operates the Adelanto Detention Center, where earlier this summer three undocumented immigrants died in as many months. The Adelanto facility has 2,000 beds for detainees. The company has become notorious for human rights abuses inside its facilities. As of publication time, it did not respond to Rewire’s request for comment regarding any contingency plan it had for the detention centers—and the people inside them—who may be directly in Harvey’s path.
GEO Group also operates the Coastal Bend Detention Center, a 1,176-bed prison for U.S. citizens that is located in Robstown, Texas. Given its proximity to the Texas coast, this facility is expected to be hit particularly hard by Hurricane Harvey. Robstown is a member of the Coastal Bend Regional Advisory Council (CBRAC) and it is the council’s responsibility, in part, to coordinate disaster and emergency response systems.
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CBRAC’s executive director, Hilary Watt, told Rewire that CBRAC is not consulted by GEO Group and “does not have any part” in providing disaster relief to detention facilities. However, the council has “rostered some ambulance buses and ambulance strike teams who have been evacuating nursing homes and the state assisted school with evacuation.”
In an emailed statement to Rewire, ICE said that in preparation for Hurricane Harvey, the agency “is taking all prudent precautions to ensure the safety and security” for those in detention and that historically, those in detention are relocated in response to hurricanes.
“ICE detainees from the Port Isabel Detention Center in Port Isabel, Texas, are in the process of being temporarily relocated to various other detention facilities outside the projected path and destruction of the hurricane,” said Daniel Bible, ICE’s San Antonio field office director. “For operational security reasons, ICE is not releasing the locations of those other detention facilities.”
In preparation for category 3 Hurricane Katrina, one of the nation’s deadliest hurricanes, it took Orleans Parish Prison six hours to evacuate just 300 of the more than 6,800 people imprisoned there at the time. The remaining prisoners were abandoned for days, left in chest-deep toxic water without food or water while prison officials fled the scenes to save themselves, according to Vice.
The National Hurricane Center has issued hurricane warnings and storm surge warnings for the areas that GEO Group facilities are located, and the private prison company’s silence on the impending danger Harvey poses comes at a turbulent time for undocumented immigrants in the state.
SB 4, Texas’ anti-immigrant law that allows for racial profiling, is set to go into effect September 1, allowing local law enforcement to pull over anyone they suspect of being undocumented. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has also announced that it will not be closing its Texas checkpoints during the hurricane, leaving undocumented Texas residents at risk of being detained and deported simply for attempting to evacuate.
“As people seek refuge from Hurricane Harvey, they are likely to have to go north or west of Texas and would have to go through a checkpoint. By keeping checkpoints open, the Border Patrol is putting undocumented people and mixed-status families at risk out of fear of deportations,” said Lorella Praeli, the American Civil Liberties Union director of immigration policy and campaigns.“This is a disgusting move from the Border Patrol that breaks with past practices. The Border Patrol should never keep checkpoints open during any natural disasters in the United States. Everyone, no matter the color of their skin or background, is worth saving.”