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Women and Children First ... to be Held in Detention

In the summer of 2014, a surge of tens of thousands of immigrant refugees from Central America brought unprecedented attention to the incarceration of families and unaccompanied children in so-called residential centers – many run by for-profit prison companies – as they sought asylum in the United States.

Human rights advocates warned of the harmful effects detention has on immigrant children, while lawmakers complained they were denied access to the facilities and immigrant detention was a financial burden on taxpayers.

Everyone on Wall Street, meanwhile, agreed that locking up immigrant families was a boon for private prison firms like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, which received lucrative contracts to run the detention centers. CCA, for example, received a no-bid, four-year contract worth $1 billion to operate its South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Even better for the company, it will be paid as if the 2,400-bed facility is at 100% capacity no matter how many immigrants are housed there. At full capacity, CCA is paid $285 per day per resident at Dilley.

In August 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) opened a purportedly “family friendly” detention center in Karnes County, Texas, about an hour southeast of San Antonio. The $32 million facility is owned and operated by Florida-based GEO Group, which also runs a jail in Karnes County.

The family detention center holds up to 532 Central American children and their mothers caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, according to ICE, which pays GEO $140 per resident per day. ICE and GEO officials were quick to point out the facility’s many amenities, including charter-school education for the children, a gym, computer lab, all-you-can-eat meals and a hair salon.

“It allows ICE detainees the freedom of movement, recreational opportunities and ... visitation, while maintaining a safe and secure environment for both the residents and the staff,” said Enrique Lucero, the head of ICE’s regional Enforcement and Removal Operations. But residents at the family detention center cannot leave; it is still a prison.

It was quite a different scene at the Artesia Detention Facility in New Mexico, which was used to house hundreds of women and children fleeing from dangerous gangs, domestic violence and deteriorating conditions in Central America.

Immigrant advocates who toured Artesia in July 2014 reported many of the facility’s children had lost weight due to adjusting to the different food and dealing with mental health issues. Detainees, they reported, had very limited access to phones and were prevented from having conversations beyond a few minutes with their family members or attorneys.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had implemented a “no bond” policy barring immigrant families from being released from detention during the asylum process, even if they had met the threshold requirements for asylum.

The National Immigration Law Center, ACLU, American Immigration Council and National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild filed suit against Artesia in federal court in August 2014. The lawsuit raised significant due process claims, including the federal government’s expedited removal of mothers and children, and the facility’s requirement that children must be present with their mothers at all times – even when they were recounting incidents of gang threats and rape to asylum officers.

Artesia detainees also didn’t receive adequate access to pro bono legal services, and ICE delayed setting up procedures for attorneys to meet with their clients, according to the lawsuit. The case was voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiffs after government officials announced that Artesia would close by the end of 2014. See: M.S.P.C. v. Johnson, U.S.D.C. (D. DC), Case No. 1:14-cv-01437-ABJ.

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine said he was denied access to a detention facility that holds up to 1,200 immigrant children, operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in his home district in Oklahoma.

As Bridenstine approached a barracks where children were housed, he noticed that a “new fence [had] been erected by HHS, completely surrounding the barracks and covered with material to totally obscure the view,” he said in a press release, adding that every gate was fastened with a chain.

“What are they trying to hide?” he asked. “Do they not want the children to speak with Members of Congress?”

Barbara Hines wrote in an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle that her experience working at the T. Don Hutto detention center near Austin, Texas – a former medium-security prison run by CCA that was used to house immigrant families – “convinced me that children and their parents should not be detained in secure facilities under any circumstances.”

“The images of sad children and their anxious parents will remain seared in my memory,” wrote Hines, who was co-counsel in litigation challenging conditions at the Hutto facility, filed by the University of Texas Immigration Clinic and the ACLU. The detention of immigrant families at Hutto ended in 2009. [See: PLN, Jan. 2008, p.20].

“Even if Homeland Security has learned this time around to scrap the prison uniforms, cells and the accoutrements of a harsh prison regime, detention of children is wrong and has lasting harmful psychological effects,” Hines stated.

In 2009, the Obama administration said no new immigrant family detention centers would be opened, leaving only one in operation – a 100-bed facility located in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, the administration later backtracked and by the end of 2014 CCA’s detention facility in Dilley and GEO Group’s Karnes County Residential Center were housing hundreds of immigrant women and children.

In mid-2015, California U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee issued a ruling that found federal agencies and their private contractors had failed to meet standards required for the detention of immigrant children under a 1997 settlement in the case of Flores v. Meese.

Gee issued orders prohibiting the government from detaining children at facilities not licensed for child care, and to stop detaining families unless it could be demonstrated they posed a flight risk or threat to national security.

The U.S. Department of Justice, acting as counsel for DHS, appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Per the Flores settlement, agencies detaining minors are required to quickly release them from detention facilities. At issue was the federal government’s interpretation of that provision to mean that only unaccompanied minors must be released from custody quickly – leaving children who had been apprehended in the company of adults (often their mothers) to remain in detention for longer periods of time.

In July 2016 the Ninth Circuit rejected that stance, finding that Flores v. Meese applies both to accompanied and unaccompanied minors, forcing federal officials to find suitable means of releasing accompanied minors from custody more quickly. See: Flores v. Lynch, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 12439 (9th Cir. July 6, 2016).

With respect to Judge Gee’s order requiring family detention centers to be licensed as child care facilities, Travis County District Court Judge Karin Crump entered a temporary injunction in June 2016 that barred the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (TDFPS) from issuing a child care license to CCA.

Prior to the injunction, TDFPS had approved a license for the company’s Dilley facility under requirements that were lower than those for non-family detention center child care facilities. TDFPS had relaxed rules that prohibit children from living in rooms with unrelated adults.

The injunction will remain in effect until hearings can be held in September 2016 to determine whether TDFPS has the authority to issue licenses with lower requirements for the Dilley facility and for GEO Group’s Karnes County detention center.

The plaintiffs in the civil action that resulted in the injunction – immigrant mothers who have been detained with their children at Dilley and Karnes, as well as Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit organization that opposes prison privatization – argued that family detention facilities are far removed from child care centers and should not be licensed as such.

“Family detention camps are prisons; they are not child care facilities. Slapping a license on the facilities will not change that fact,” said Grassroots Leadership executive director Bob Libal. “We are glad the court heard our concerns today about the damage that family detention does to mothers and their children and how lowering standards to issue licenses to these facilities only exacerbates that harm.”

While the family detention centers are controversial, they are also profitable. According to news reports, 14% of CCA’s revenue comes from its contract to operate the Dilley facility, which has contributed to “record profits” [see p. 48 of this issue]. 

Sources: Houston Chronicle,,,, Miami Herald,,,, Los Angeles Times,, Texas Observer,

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Related legal cases

Flores v. Lynch

M.S.P.C. v. Johnson