Immigrants in Texas Want Health, Freedom

by Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 24, Spring 2015

   Immigrants held in two federal Texas facilities run by profit-driven private companies are refusing to tolerate neglect of their health and unsafe conditions.

   In February, people imprisoned at the Willacy County Correctional Center set fire to several of the giant tents their thousands of bunks were squeezed into. They were protesting poor medical care, insect and spider infestations, and overflowing toilets—conditions the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documented last year.

   “Basic medical concerns are often ignored or inadequately addressed,” the ACLU reported in 2014. Dental care at Willacy consisted of tooth extraction—and no dentures. One man at Willacy became too weak and confused to walk without help but was refused laboratory tests. After a few weeks, a visiting doctor told him he had hepatitis C. Two years later, he had still not received any treatment.

   Most of those incarcerated at Willacy are doing time for entering the U.S. illegally, which the Obama administration prosecutes as a crime. Originally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained people there for deportation, but ICE closed the facility because of medical neglect and widespread abuse. The federal Bureau of Prisons decided this would be just fine for those convicted of crimes. It gave a contract to the same company, Management and Training Corporation, to continue to operate Willacy.

   The February uprising left Willacy inoperable, and the Bureau of Prisons finally ended its contract. Twelve private prisons still hold people convicted of immigration offenses.  

Families in Detention

   At Karnes County Residential Center, mothers are detained with their children while seeking asylum. For almost a week at the beginning of April, about 70 mothers refused food and work to demand their freedom. The refugees have been interviewed by immigration officials and shown a credible fear of violence if deported. But since the Obama administration has cracked down on asylum seekers, they are being held indefinitely or for thousands of dollars in bond.

   “Our children are not eating well, and every day they are losing weight,” the mothers wrote in a letter to ICE. “Their health is deteriorating. We know that any mother would do what we are doing for their children.”

   Barbara Hines of the University of Texas Law School told Democracy Now that the Karnes facility, run by the GEO Group, has “severe problems with medical care” in addition to the horrors of locking up children. “The first case,” she added, “was a child that had brain cancer. And ICE and the facility knew that she had brain cancer. They refused to provide any medical care.” The child was freed after a community outcry. One mother was ordered not to let her baby crawl, Hines said.

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