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Migrant Women, Children Allege Harsh Conditions, Sexual Assault at For-Profit Texas Immigration Jail

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Broadcasting from San Antonio, we look at a new family detention center just south of the city that holds more than 500 immigrant women and their children as they await deportation. The for-profit Karnes County Residential Center is owned by the GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the United States. Many women imprisoned at the Karnes facility have accused guards of sexually assaulting them. A federal complaint filed last week says guards are promising the women help with their immigration cases in return for sexual favors. Many of the detainees came to the United States seeking asylum from violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. But the Obama administration says it is detaining them in order to discourage more migrants from coming. We hear from one of the facility’s few detainees to be released since a wave of migrants arrived in August, an El Salvador national who came with her 7-year-old daughter, who suffers from brain cancer. We also speak to Javier Maldonado, an immigration attorney involved in the detainees’ case alleging sexual assault and poor conditions, and Cristina Parker, the immigration projects coordinator for Grassroots Leadership and co-author of their new report, “For-Profit Family Detention: Meet the Private Prison Corporations Making Millions by Locking Up Refugee Families.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we broadcast here in Texas, where a controversial new family detention center has opened about, oh, an hour south of San Antonio. The Karnes County Residential Center began holding more than 500 immigrant women and children in August. Many of them came to the United States seeking asylum from violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador. But the Obama administration says it’s detaining them in order to discourage more migrants from coming.

Only a handful of detainees have been released. One of them spoke to Democracy Now! about her ordeal. Sara Aida Beltrán Rodríguez fled here from El Salvador with her seven-year-old daughter Nayely, who was suffering from brain cancer. In this interview, she describes what happened after she and her daughter were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Then we hear from their lawyer, who helped secure their release from detention.

SARA AIDA BELTRÁN RODRÍGUEZ: [translated] I crossed the river. I ended up in McAllen at the detention center. I was interviewed on video, and the man that interviewed me did ask me, and all I got to say was about the situation with my daughter. They informed me that I had a deportation and that they weren’t going to be able to help me.

When I arrived at Karnes, I was told to tell them everything at an interview there, and I told them about my daughter’s case. They encouraged me to tell them the whole story. And I did. And they did examine her to see how she was, just like they do to all the children, just a normal physical examination. And I thought that they were going to help me by having a specialist examine her, but they were not able to, because of—I think maybe because it was really costly. And I kept asking for that and expecting some sort of help in that area, but I didn’t get any.

I did notice that her left arm, the movement was very limited, and her feet were falling asleep. And I thought that it was because we were in a small space and she wasn’t getting out. And I could see that she was very stressed about being locked in there. And she was crying every night. And she would ask, “When are we leaving? Why are we here? When are we going to get out?” And I saw her suffer a lot, and it was devastating.

KATE LINCOLN-GOLDFINCH: My name is Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch. I’m an immigration lawyer, and I’m representing Sara and Nayely in their immigration proceedings. I was contacted by the UT Immigration Clinic about midway through August this year regarding Sara and Nayely’s case. They had discovered that Sara and Nayely were detained and that Nayely had a malignant brain tumor and was not receiving treatment. The UT clinic had sent a letter to immigration asking for Nayely’s release and had not received a response, and then they passed the case onto me to take over pro bono representation to see if I could maybe get them out.

The first thing I did was have an MRI report translated. Sara had an MRI report that was two years old. And we discovered that her situation was very dire. She had not only a growing malignant brain tumor, but she also had a shunt installed in her brain that was to drain fluid, and it could have malfunctioned at any time. We weren’t sure how it was operating. And if it did malfunction, she could have severe brain damage or not survive. And so, it was very, very distressing once I learned that that was the situation and that Nayely was not receiving care.

And when I didn’t receive any response from ICE after my inquiries, we decided to do a media campaign. So I partnered with Grassroots Leadership, and we issued a press release, and Grassroots Leadership mobilized their base to start calling ICE and making inquiries. And about two days after that campaign, I got a call from the deportation officer that Sara and Nayely were going to be released under parole. They weren’t required to pay a bond. And as far as I know, this is the only case out of Karnes where a parole has been obtained.

AMY GOODMAN: That was immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch and her client Sara Aida Beltrán Rodríguez, who was, until recently, one of the 500 women held in the new family detention center in Karnes City, an hour south of San Antonio, along with her little daughter Nayely. Nayely is now undergoing evaluation at the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas in Austin. This comes as other immigrant women imprisoned at the Karnes facility have accused guards of sexually assaulting them. Special thanks to Renée Feltz for that report.

A federal complaint filed last week says guards are promising women help with their immigration cases in return for sexual favors. Meanwhile, immigration officials have announced plans for a new 2,400-bed family detention center in Dilley, Texas, another town not far from San Antonio.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Javier Maldonado is an immigration and civil rights attorney based in San Antonio. His law firm joined the MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; the University of Texas School of Law; and Human Rights First in filing the complaint last week with the Department of Homeland Security over “serious allegations of substantial, ongoing sexual abuse” at the Karnes County facility. They’ve also filed a complaint over poor conditions there. And Cristina Parker is immigration projects coordinator for Grassroots Leadership and co-author of their new report, “For-Profit Family Detention: Meet the Private Prison Corporations Making Millions by Locking Up Refugee Families.”

Welcome both to you here in San Antonio. I want to discuss the report we just heard about this mother and her daughter, her daughter who she brought into the United States to deal with brain cancer. But this latest allegations, Javier Maldonado, why don’t we start there, with this complaint that you filed?

JAVIER MALDONADO: Sure, sure. We, a group of attorneys and myself, started visiting the facility to render pro bono assistance to the families there, the moms and children. And we began to hear complaints of women being taken out in the middle of the night, that women had been offered money, that they had been offered promises of help with their immigration cases, and that many of these women were seen either being fondled or kissing with the guards. These are particularly vulnerable women, who have traveled a long journey, escaping violence and domestic violence, in many cases, their home countries. And they were subjected to these sorts of sexual coercion and sexual abuse. And for that reason—

AMY GOODMAN: And their fear if they don’t give in?

JAVIER MALDONADO: That’s right. Well, you know, and the fear that they don’t give in, and they have very little in that facility. There were—our other complaint was about the conditions and there not being enough food for the families and the children. And so, if you are being promised a little bit of money, if you’re being promised access to kitchen, if you’re being promised extra milk, you know, that is a terrible condition for families to be living in.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the conditions at the prison.

JAVIER MALDONADO: Yes. We also were interviewing the families and learning that, for example, toddlers, who need to crawl, were being restricted from crawling, that there weren’t toys or books for the children in their cells, because, let’s be honest, regardless of what the sign says on the outside, that it is a residential center, it is a jail. There are bars. It is surrounded by barbed wire. These women are not getting out. These children are not getting out. In the hot Texas sun, there are very, very few places to play. So when we were visiting them in August and in September, the saddest thing was that that was the only opportunity for the children to come into the visiting area and play with the toys. It’s when their moms were meeting with attorneys. This is not a place where families should be held. This is not a place where kids should be held.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us more about Nayely, this little girl we just met in Renée’s report?

JAVIER MALDONADO: Right. I didn’t represent her. My friend Kate represented her. She has a very serious medical condition. The facility at Karnes just is not equipped to handle these sorts of medical problems.

AMY GOODMAN: She’s seven years old.

JAVIER MALDONADO: She’s seven years old. It took a media campaign and pleadings from the community to finally force or persuade Homeland Security to release this mom and child. It shouldn’t take a media campaign to get medical attention. Nayely is one person that fortunately was released from the facility, but there are other children suffering other conditions—asthma—

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve represented other children.

JAVIER MALDONADO: Yes, yes. You know, children who are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, because they were threatened, they were beaten; women who were raped in their home country. This is not a facility that’s affording—that’s providing the care that these families need.

AMY GOODMAN: Javier, how old is your youngest client?

JAVIER MALDONADO: The youngest one, he was just released on Friday, two years old.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was his story? How long was he held in the facility?

JAVIER MALDONADO: He was held for approximately eight weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: With his mother.

JAVIER MALDONADO: With his mother, he and his five-year-old brother were held in that facility.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the alternative?

JAVIER MALDONADO: The alternative is what was done in the past, which was parents—the families were given an immigration hearing to come and report. If the government believes that that is insufficient, if—guarantees that the families will show up, there are other alternatives. There’s electronic monitoring. There is, for example, requiring the family to report on a weekly basis, either in person or by phone. There’s other things that this administration could have done short of putting mothers and children behind bars.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Cristina Parker. She has a new report out called “For-Profit Family Detention: Meet the Private Prison Corporations Making MIllions by Locking Up Refugee Families.” Talk about who runs Karnes.

CRISTINA PARKER: Sure. The GEO Group is the private prison company that is contracted to run the Karnes County family detention center. And they have a long track record of abuse and neglect and misconduct in their facilities. It should be no surprise to anyone, actually, that sexual abuse and denial of medical treatment happened almost as soon as the facility was opened.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give more examples of what you have found?

CRISTINA PARKER: Sure. You know, one of the things that we see is that this misconduct is really persistent. For instance, in the Walnut Grove juvenile center in Mississippi, guards frequently used beatings and violence and sexual assault against the boys who are held there. They also retaliated a lot against people when they complained. So the boys would complain about their treatment, and they’d be put into solitary confinement. So, if you look many miles away at a facility in Pecos, Texas, called the Reeves detention center, the same thing happened. A man who had—who suffered from epilepsy complained of his lack of medical treatment, and he was put into solitary confinement. He spent a month there before he died of complications of a seizure alone. It actually caused a riot in the prison.

AMY GOODMAN: How are these facilities placed? How are they planned? Is there community input?

CRISTINA PARKER: There’s no community input when these facilities are planned. And they’re placed in really remote areas. Karnes is a little bit away from where we’re sitting right now, but there’s a new one planned in Dilley, Texas, which is even more remote, further south.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this facility? We’re talking 2,400 beds?

CRISTINA PARKER: Yeah, Dilley, it’s really shocking. It can’t really be overstated how shocking and how big this detention center is going to be. Once it—

AMY GOODMAN: How big is Karnes?

CRISTINA PARKER: Karnes is holding 532 people. It is rumored that they want to expand it to maybe double. But even then, Dilley dwarfs it. You know, Dilley is going to be 2,400 beds, the largest single immigrant detention center in the country, dwarfing all the others. And this is where they’re going to hold women and children. I think, you know, it’s shocking.

AMY GOODMAN: Will this be run by GEO?

CRISTINA PARKER: No, the Dilley center is rumored to be run by CCA, and CCA is the Corrections Corporation of America, the same company that ran the disgraced T. Don Hutto family detention center, which is in Taylor, Texas. And the thing that’s so shocking there is that we’re seeing the exact same things be repeated. In Hutto, we heard reports of guards threatening children for being children—for playing, for being loud—with separation from their parents. That’s the exact same thing we heard when we went to Karnes recently, and it’s a persistent problem. Another problem is women and children are losing weight. You know, imagine an infant losing weight because the food is so poor. That’s exactly what we heard at Hutto under CCA, and it’s exactlywhat we’re hearing at Karnes under GEO.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the rationale for these private corporations to come in and run these prisons, Javier Maldonado?

JAVIER MALDONADO: Well, what is the—profit. It’s to make money. The government pays them on a per-day basis, whether it’s filled or not. And the longer they keep people there, the more money they make. Why do they place them where they do, in Karnes or in Dilley? Because there are no attorneys there. Because no one can get to them. Because it’s just in remote places where nobody will see them, and we don’t have to think about them.

AMY GOODMAN: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, spokesperson Nina Pruneda said in a statement that, quote, ”ICE remains committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner. Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly and if substantiated, appropriate action is taken,” she said. While she wouldn’t comment on the specific complaints about sexual misconduct at Karnes City family detention center, she said that there is a zero-tolerance policy against sexual assault in accordance with federal regulations. Cristina Parker, your response?

CRISTINA PARKER: Yeah, my response to that is they don’t seem to learn their lesson. We’ve seen this over and over and over with GEO, with CCA, with family detention. You know, it’s no surprise to any of us. I don’t know why they would keep going back to these companies.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re organizing a protest Saturday?

CRISTINA PARKER: We are, yeah. We’re going to be outside the Karnes County family detention center at noon this Saturday. We invite people to come with us and protest against this shameful practice, this inhumane practice of holding people there. And, you know, we’re not going to stop. Our hope is to stop the Dilley contract, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it set in stone? Do you think there is a possibility that the Dilley contract, the 2,400-bed facility, might be stopped?

CRISTINA PARKER: You know, I don’t like to believe that. I really think that we can stop it. I think you know, community outcry and litigation ended family detention at Hutto, and I think we’re going to do it again.

AMY GOODMAN: Javier Maldonado, this is the Obama administration. He has been called the deporter-in-chief by the mainstream organizations of immigrants rights groups, more deportations under the Obama administration than we’ve ever seen under a president.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re at over, what, two million mark? We’ve passed that mark?

JAVIER MALDONADO: I think it has been at least 300,000 every year, over 300,000 every year, deportations.

AMY GOODMAN: What advice do you have for President Obama? What do you think needs to be done right now?

JAVIER MALDONADO: I don’t think—whether it’s him or his officials, I don’t think they appreciate the seriousness of the problem and what they’re causing, the injuries that they’re causing to families and children. Locking them up—

AMY GOODMAN: How many deportations a day?

JAVIER MALDONADO: A day from Karnes or?

AMY GOODMAN: Overall. Do you know that number?

JAVIER MALDONADO: Well, if it’s 300,000 a year, it’s at least 10,000 a month. You know, the figures are pretty large. And so, I don’t think they appreciate the seriousness of the problems of detaining mothers and children. We can understand why adult men would be detained or why even adult women might be detained, but detaining mothers and children has crossed the line between what is appropriate immigration policy and just plain punitive policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, and we will link to all reports. Javier Maldonado is an immigration and civil rights attorney here in San Antonio. Cristina Parker with Grassroots Leadership. We’ll link to that report, “For-Profit Family Detention: Meet the Private Prison Corporations Making MIllions by Locking Up Refugee Families.”

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from Trinity University in San Antonio from TigerTV. When we come back, we’ll talk more about what’s happening here in San Antonio and particularly talk about the issue of fracking. Stay with us.

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