Are Immigrant Detention Centers the New Internment Camps?


Agatha Bacelar

Emerson Collective Senior Fellow Barbara Hines has spent the last 40 years providing legal representation for people who have fled violence and persecution. A former professor and director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, Hines is a leading advocate in the fight to end family detention—the controversial practice of incarcerating refugees in jail-like conditions while they await immigration hearings.

Over the past year, Hines’ work has taken her to the remote towns of Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, home to two of three new family detention centers in the United States built to hold more than 2,000 mothers and children. Most of these detainees are fleeing an explosion of violence in Central America, where gangs have overtaken police forces and homicide rates are among the highest in the world.

The heavy costs of family detention at Karnes and Dilley are borne by refugees and taxpayers alike. Detained women work four hours a day for just $1 an hour at these facilities, which are run by the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group. For children—many of whom are malnourished and lack access to proper medical treatment—the physical and emotional toll of incarceration may exact a cost for the rest of their lives, as developmental milestones are delayed or disrupted.

For U.S. taxpayers, the cost of detaining an individual at Dilley runs higher than $300 per day. Effective alternatives to detention, such as community case management systems that link immigrants to lawyers and social services, are far less expensive and significantly more humane. Unfortunately, case management for released families is currently administered by GEO Group—the same corporation that runs the government’s detention centers—which offers families neither community contacts nor connections to vital services.

With the debate over immigration reform stalled in Washington, Hines and her colleagues are on the front lines, serving families trapped in what can only be described as a new generation of internment camps. Hines recently took us to Karnes, Texas to meet some of these women and children and to hear about the conditions they are enduring in the struggle for a better life.

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