Homeland chief to tour immigrant family detention center that critics call a prison

Critics say immigrant family detention centers are like jails; the Homeland Security chief sees for himself

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is scheduled on Monday to visit one of the nation’s three immigration detention centers for families, which have drawn criticism from advocates and members of Congress in recent weeks.

The facility, Karnes County Residential Center, is run by a federal contractor, the Geo Group, about 50 miles south of San Antonio. It is not open to the public. Johnson’s visit is closed to the media, as was an unpublicized April visit to the same facility by the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Obama administration expanded immigrant family detention after an influx of more than 68,000 families into the U.S. last fiscal year. Many of the families were fleeing north from Central America and crossing the southern border illegally into Texas' Rio Grande Valley, which has seen fewer migrants this summer, though it remains the epicenter of crossings.

Both Texas family detention centers opened last year in Eagle Ford shale oil country south of San Antonio. Karnes, which previously had been used as an ICE detention center for men, opened to families in July. Dilley, a larger, rural outpost of fenced-in portable trailers with a playground, opened in December.

Dilley was housing about 800 immigrants last month, but by year’s end, it will be able to take in up to 2,500. By contrast, the nation's third family detention center in Berks, Penn., has room for about 100; Karnes about 600.

Last month, several hundred protesters gathered outside the Dilley center,  demanding an end to family detention and toting hand-printed signs that said “Don’t put kids in prison.”

ICE officials say family detention centers are not prisons. They say the facilities are well-equipped to house women and children, providing schooling, medical care and security as families await the outcomes of pending immigration court cases.

Critics disagree, including 136 House Democrats who signed a letter last month calling on the administration to end family detention. They say that the facilities are prisons where families suffer and that they should be released until their cases conclude — if necessary, with reasonable bonds and electronic ankle monitors.

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