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Border & Immigration

Nice ICE: New Face of Immigration Detention

At the new immigration detention center in Karnes City, Texas, the outdoor recreation areas will be available to detainees 24 hours a day.
Hernán Rozemberg
At the new immigration detention center in Karnes City, Texas, the outdoor recreation areas will be available to detainees 24 hours a day.
Nice ICE: New Face of Immigration Detention
Karnes City, Texas, is home to the first immigration detention center built with softer conditions in mind.

KARNES CITY, Texas — Joe Longoria, a veteran deportation officer, has worked in several federal immigrant detention centers over the years.

Some are older, some newer — yet none even closely resemble this new one in rural South Texas, roughly an hour’s drive south of San Antonio. This prison for detained illegal immigrants was officially opened in March. Leading a tour, Longoria strolled out of the main building to the enclosed courtyard, driving home the message of the place’s uniqueness.

He kept repeating buzzwords like ideal, dynamic and nice.


“As you can see out here to your right, there’s going to be an artificial grass soccer field. It’s just something that’s a new dynamic, a civil posture that’s ideal for the residents that we’re going to be housing,” he said.

“It’s at their disposal, once again, it’s something that’s nice, you haven’t seen this in any other facility within ICE, so it’s something that’s new,” Longoria said.

It’s evident the effort that has been put in to make Karnes County Civil Detention Center the government’s least restrictive prison in the country.

It’s the first one built from the ground up — with a $32 million price tag — with new, softer detention conditions in mind. Some of these include less punitive housing, better medical services, more open movement and improved recreational opportunities.

The center’s walls are painted in light pastel colors. Detainees are held in eight-bed “suites” with unlocked doors. They can walk in and out anytime they want and even spend the whole night in the courtyard or in rooms with TVs and board games.


While ICE built and owns the detention center, day-to-day operations are contracted out to one of the country’s largest private prison management companies, the GEO Group.

The company is particularly proud of the unprecedented medical service detainees will be offered. The large medical staff includes nine full-time nurses, a full-time doctor and a psychologist, as well as part-time psychiatrist and dentist.

“The staff has all been hired,” said Connie Danley, who directs health services for GEO prisons in Texas. “And ready to roll.”

Despite all the changes evident in its new model prison, ICE continues to field heavy criticism on its detention system and policies.

Immigrant advocates acknowledged it’s an improvement from the past, but to them it’s still not good enough. It’s like putting on a Band-aid on a deep wound, they maintained.

More than two dozen other facilities across the Southwest alone have established records of inadequate care and harsh treatment of detainees by guards, including sexual abuse, said Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership in Austin, one of many activist groups that have long called for immigration detention reform.

“When you’re contracting with a company like GEO Group that has a long and very public record of problems in their facilities, with their facilities being closed due to scandal, due to abuse, I think that’s a very questionable choice for the model of the new detention system,” Libal said during a protest outside the Karnes City facility in March.

It’s not just immigrant advocates criticizing the new ICE detention standards.

Anti-illegal-immigration hardliners like U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), powerful chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, now accuse ICE of going way too far to accommodate immigrant detainees.

Smith declined to be interviewed but in a statement he labeled the new detention manual as a “hospitality guideline for illegal immigrants who will now get better treatment than detained U.S. citizens.”

He just held a hearing on the matter, mockingly titling it “Holiday on ICE.”

ICE is even feeling the heat from within its own ranks. Chris Crane, a deportation officer and the president of the National ICE Council, the union representing more than 7,000 ICE employees, said his bosses are putting politics before safety.

"We are going to have 90 percent convicted criminals in custody. There will be no restrictions. We will not be able to conduct strip searches. They will have full contact visits,” Crane said. “We are going to have weapons coming into our facilities, drugs, other contraband, putting other detainees and officers at risk.” But ICE readily dismissed such accusations. The agency maintained the 608 detainees at the new Karnes center will have no criminal convictions.

They will be non-violent men — female detainees will not be housed here — facing the civil immigration charge of being in the country illegally.

The agency also fended off blows from advocates, arguing the new detention model signals a dramatic departure from the past. But no matter what the agency does or doesn’t do with its immigration detention system, it still has to work with existing laws, said Gary Mead, who runs the immigration detention system for ICE.

And laws still say immigrants caught illegally in the country must be detained and deported, Mead said.

When and if Congress changes the laws, he said, he would then be able to consider a drastically different system.