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Border & Immigration

A New Facility For Immigrants In Texas Is Trying To Be More Residence Than Detention Center

In the past U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has faced harsh criticism for conditions at its immigration detention facilities. But they are hoping to change that with a new kind of center in Karnes County, Texas.

Officials are calling it "residential" rather than "detention."

Situated in Karnes County, 60 miles southeast of San Antonio, sits the 29-acre Karnes County Residential Center. It previously was called the Karnes County Civil Detention Center and housed males apprehended at the border. Now, ICE has altered the facility entirely to house women and children. 

"The Karnes County Residential Center is the first center constructed with new ICE civil detention reforms in mind," said Enrique Lucero, director of the San Antonio ICE field office. "It allows ICE detainees the freedom of movement, recreational opportunities, counsel visitation, while maintaining a safe and secure environment for both the residents and the staff. I'm pretty sure this is nothing like you've ever seen before."

ICE holds an intergovernmental service agreement with Karnes County, who contracts the day-to-day operations through the GEO Group,

The center resembles a college dormitory but has the security of a detention facility. At capacity it can house 530 women and children.

Credit Joey Palacios / TPR News
The interior of the Karnes County center will hold a playground and soccer field.

On the side of the complex is a large concourse called the Sallie Port, where the residents will arrive and the buses will depart.

On the wall the words "Welcome," and "Beinvenidos" are written. Inside, the intake center resembles a doctor's waiting room with a series of desks in the center and smaller rooms along the side painted with animal caricatures, televisions playing children's shows, and filled with toys and children's books.

In this area the women and their children are processed, allowed to take showers and are then given six new sets of clothes. 

"There will be a 'know your rights' presentation taking place so that residents know their rights as far as immigration rights, bond rights, asylum rights, those will be playing in both English and Spanish," Lucero said.

Signs all over the facility are evidence that officials are trying to make this more of a residential center versus a detention. Even the word "detention" was erased from the outdoor sign up front.

Lucero said all of the women and children brought here will be referred to as residents instead of detainees.

"Traditionally you've heard the staff being called 'guards' here they are called resident advisors," he said.

Down the hall, residents are given medical exams including a physical, dental, optical, and tuberculosis screenings. Lucero said minors under 18 will be seen within 24 hours by a doctor; adults will be seen within seven days.

The medical portion is open 24 hours and afterwards for around-the-clock medical care.

Around the residents living area are two court yards, one is filled will be filled with playground equipment and the other with a soccer field. It's surrounded by the individual resident rooms, classrooms, a cafeteria, library, gymnasium, and salon.

Credit Joey Palacios / TPR News
The interior of one of the residential suites for detained mothers and their children.

"The residents here have access to this area from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. That's everyday freedom of movement, they don't have to be escorted," Lucero said. "They can walk in and walk in and out of their suites, they can walk in and out of the day rooms."

The residents are provided with phone cards that can be reloaded by family members, and have internet access through the library but are blocked from social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. The cafeteria serves three meals per day and residents over the age of 18 can work in either the cafeteria or adjacent beauty salon for $3 per day.

"During the time they are working their children are being provided child care by a resident advisor, so they can work seven days a week but only up to four hours," Lucero said.

The children of school age will be provided an education through a San Antonio charter school. In a room close to the library, the women will be able to have video conference with ICE officials. And while there is a courtroom on site, there is no judge set to be there at this time. The living suites, can hold up to eight people in bunkbeds and have private bathrooms.

"There maybe only one family in a suite, there may be two families in a suite, it's really going to depend on the family, the make up of those children, the gender of those children," Lucero said.

Lucero said he isn't sure how long a resident will stay here at the facility but his office said the average length of stay for most people is about 20 days before being released or removed. The cnter is expected to begin taking in detainees this month. The cost to run the facility is $141 per resident per day.