New policy keeps detention center busy
BY DAVID MCLEMORE
The Dallas Morning News
PEARSALL, Texas – Except for the 10-foot-high security fence topped with barbed wire and the concrete barriers at the front door, the institutional gray complex in a former farm field along Interstate 35 could pass for a new high school.
To immigration officials, South Texas Detention Center is simply a part of the nation’s effort to efficiently detain illegal immigrants pending deportation.
To critics, it’s a prison by another name and an example of increasing erosion of civil rights for immigrants.
At the heart of the debate is the Department of Homeland Security’s policy of expedited removal to address the dramatic increase in the number of immigrants crossing illegally – particularly those from countries other than Mexico.
Last year, some 135,000 “other than Mexicans,” or OTMs, were apprehended in Texas. Most were released on their own recognizance pending deportation hearings. But 90 percent failed to show up for their hearing dates, disappearing into the U.S. interior.
Eleanor Arce of Human Rights First, a New York-based immigrants rights organization, calls expedited removal “a flawed system with no meaningful safeguards to prevent deportation of an asylum seeker with a valid claim.”
“It essentially gives an immigration officer the power to issue a deportation order, not a judge,” she said.
But Marc Moore, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention and removal for a 54-county area in South Texas, disagrees.
“We’re not in the incarceration business,” he said. But “we don’t want people to believe they have free access to our borders. So our goal is to move people out in as short a time as possible and do so without trampling on their legal rights.”
On average, about 720 detainees flow through the Pearsall center daily, though the number fluctuates with round-the-clock movement. On any given day, there are about 23,000 illegal immigrants nationwide in the 17 detention centers that fall under Homeland Security.
Of the five facilities in Texas, the three in South Texas can hold about 3,200 – the Pearsall center southwest of San Antonio, about 1,020. Immigration officials also move detainees to other federal facilities or county jails throughout the state as needed.
At the Pearsall center, the largest and newest facility in the state, cameras and guards monitor movement throughout.
Immigration officers or guards accompanying detainees flash their IDs through a number of security checkpoints as they work their way through the building.
No one moves through the complex unless accompanied by a guard.
Ruben Garza, a detention officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said detainees are free to ask questions about their case.
“And we provide a grievance box in each pod where they can file complaints,” he said. “The security is more for the detainees’ sake than ours. We do what we can to make their stay here safe and comfortable.”
New detainees are fingerprinted, photographed and checked for criminal history. Those with no criminal history get blue jumpsuits. Those with pending criminal charges, such as smuggling people, get orange. And detainees with criminal records get to wear red.
Blue jumpsuits are kept separate from the red and orange.
Men and women stay in separate compounds on opposite sides of the complex. The men’s areas, called pods, are arranged for groups of 32 or 64. Women’s facilities are arranged for groups of 20 to 40.
A separate two-story building holds high-risk cases or those who pose a danger to other detainees.
Each of the pods has a living area, beds, and showers and toilets arranged in utilitarian simplicity.
The immigrants take their meals here, watch TV or talk. The kitchen provides both regular meals and special diets required for medical or religious reasons.
The 238,000-square-foot facility also houses a 67-bed hospital unit with complete medical, dental and emergency facilities staffed by on-site physicians and nurses.
About two hours each day, detainees can go to an outdoor recreation area adjacent to each pod.
But unless they volunteer for kitchen or cleaning crews, they must stay locked in their pods.
A bank of phones against the back wall gives them access to attorneys or immigrant advocates. And family and attorney visits are available during fixed hours during the day.
Last year, the 54 counties covered by ICE in South Texas removed 17,000 detainees – mainly from Nicaragua, El Salvador and throughout Central America, but also from throughout Central Europe, the Middle East and China.
“About 30 to 40 percent have a criminal record – ranging from the very minor to the very serious,” Moore said. “There are cases that come through that are now the focus of further investigation on national security issues.”
Expedited removal has been around in a limited way since 1997.
But in early 2005, as the number of non-Mexican illegal immigrants skyrocketed, it was expanded to the Border Patrol sectors in Tucson, McAllen and Laredo, then to the entire Southwestern border. Earlier this year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff expanded expedited removal to cover all U.S. borders.
Javier Maldonado, a San Antonio civil rights attorney, said the new policy is subjecting “more people than ever” to detention “while the standards for legal relief have gotten stricter.”
“For those who make a claim for asylum, the process just grows longer,” he added.
Maldonado said some can “be stuck in detention for six to nine months” before seeing an immigration judge. And appeals can last another year.
“The government can deport them while they appeal their removal,” he added. “No one can say life is easy for these people.”
Under special agreement, illegal immigrants from Mexico, about 92 percent of those apprehended in 2005, were eligible for “voluntary return” and taken across the border within hours.
But for those from other nations, lengthy detentions pending deportation proceedings meant they’d spend an average of 90 days or longer in captivity. A shortage of detention space meant the OTMs with no criminal record or who posed no security risk were issued a notice to appear later before an immigration judge.
More than 118,000 “other than Mexicans” failed to appear for deportation proceedings since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to Border Patrol data. The vast majority were from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Brazil. But a handful came from 35 “special interest” countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Yemen.
Chertoff has vowed that all catch-and-release will end by October, largely through the rapid increase in detention space. In fiscal 2006, Homeland Security’s appropriations bill provided for the construction of 1,920 new detention beds. By fiscal 2007, the White House wants an additional $400 million for 6,700 new beds to bring the total to 27,500 by the end of the year.
Arce of Human Rights First said the emphasis on detention and rapid removal means that asylum seekers can more easily get lost in the cracks.
In fiscal 2005, there were 32,900 claims for asylum, according to the government’s Immigration Monthly Statistical Report, only a slight increase over the preceding year.
“People who come to this country because of political or cultural oppression have suddenly found the way much more difficult,” she said. “They are improperly jailed in prison-like facilities and often found it more difficult to find legal representation for their claim.”
For the man in charge of detaining and removing illegal immigra
nts in South Texas, it’s not an issue.
“I don’t see any infringements on individual rights by the expeditious movement of detainees home,” said Moore. “Asylum applications can come at any time, right to when they walk out to get on the plane home.”
The current system is a one-size-fits-all policy that reflects the overall national shift in immigration policy that favors security over individual rights, Maldonado said.
“In essence, the government says that anyone in this country without documents can be detained with no bond allowed and held for return regardless of how established they may be, how benign they may be or with little regard to what drove them to enter illegally,” he said. “We need something better than a policy that tries to fit all circumstances.”