shutterstock_247077634On to Karnes

With only the Artesia episode as a guide, I arrived in San Antonio this past January 11th, once again not really knowing what to expect.  The two experiences were very different.  Whereas in  Artesia the volunteers worked 16 to 18 hours every day, including weekends, to serve a detainee community that was in the several hundreds, there were only a relative handful of clients at Karnes, and only four of us volunteers that week to assist the project’s staff Christina and Vanessa.  And, as Christina told us when we reported to the RAICES property that served as our office, “we don’t work weekends” in San Antonio.  All of this sounded pretty manageable.  After spending a day to study the case files that Christina assigned, Shobhana Kasturi, Megan Boelstler and I drove down to Karnes, about 60 miles southeast of San Antonio.  While there’s not much to see along the way, the landscape wasn’t nearly as desolate as the trip from Albuquerque to Artesia had been.  A quick Google search suggests that the Karnes City Family Residential Center has a schizophrenic profile, depending on which link you view.  Is it a “family friendly environment,” as one post claims?  Or is it a no-nonsense, let’s-keep-movin’-‘em-out holding facility meant to discourage women and children from entering the United States?  Consider these two perspectives and then decide for yourself:

The family-friendly perspective:

It (the Karnes facility) will also be a much more family friendly environment.

“I am pretty sure you will agree this is nothing like we have seen before,” said ICE field office director Enrique Lucero during Thursday’s media tour of the facility.

Previously, the people being held at the facility were called detainees. Now they will be called residents. Guards are now called resident advisors. Even the facility itself will be referred to as a resident center rather than a detention center.

Lucero said the building will provide a safe and sound environment for families who are waiting for either asylum or a return to their home country.

“While they are getting their due process and going through the proceedings, we will provide a safe environment for them.”

The amenities do not stop simply at safe. Families will be given a health examination upon arrival along with six sets of fresh clothing for each member. Doctor attention will be available at all times and residents will have access to a dentist. Even the walls of the center have been painted with many colorful characters and pictures as many children are expected to call it home.

“There will be cartoons playing for children and games of that nature,” said Lucero.

Other amenities include recreational fields, a library, internet access, and a cafeteria which will serve three all-you-can-eat meals a day. Certified teachers will also be on site to provide year-round education and small jobs will also be available paying $3 a day for four hours of work.

The all-business perspective:

ICE modified its contract with Karnes County on July 11th to allow for the re-purposing of the facility. The county contracts with The GEO Group to run the day-to-day operations.

[ICE field office director Enrique] Lucero said the average stay for an ICE detainee is 23 days and they will try to maintain that average at the Karnes County Residential Center which has 532 beds. Still, during a press conference after Thursday’s tour, he warned the accommodations should not be motivation for anyone trying to illegally cross the border.

“Do not risk the lives of your children or risk your life. This is a dangerous journey coming to the U.S.,” Lucero said. “The U.S. border is not open to immigration and after your immediate detention and due process, there is every likelihood you will be returned to your home country.”

So, let’s see how this plays out.  Cell phones permitted?  “No cell phones.”  Easy access to clients?  “Well, of course!  Just wait  ( … and wait some more) while we locate your clients.  By the way, did you send us a FAX to let us know you’d be coming?”  After 45 minutes, “OK, here we are.  Just pass through this metal detector.  But first, let’s see your bar card and your driver’s license, which we’ll hold for you.  You can pick them up when you’re finished with your client visit and you return this numbered badge that we need you to wear.  What’s that?  You say you have some coloring books and a little stuffed animal for the children?  Sorry, we can’t allow that, cuz we provide ‘em with everything they need.”  (After some begging by the attorney)  “OK, we’ll have to check with the warden.”  (This is a quote, “the warden.”)  Apparently, the warden relented because the attorney was permitted to bring these items inside the visiting area – “but just this one time, you hear?  Next time, fill out this form in advance and let us know what you want to bring.  We’ll have to check it out ahead of time.”  How about water?  Can we bring water for the client?  The clients tell us that the water here is heavily chlorinated and it’s difficult to drink.  “No water.  Those bottles that you have there are not the right size anyway.  We give ‘em all the water they need.”

This doesn’t sound very family friendly to me.  In fact, the Karnes City Family Residential Center sounds downright Orwellian.  But is this the hill I want to die on?  Maybe there are more important battles to fight.  And, of course there are because this is family detention.

What next? I’ll focus on one case and we’ll follow it for a while.

Written by Frank Johnson, AILA Member and Volunteer

Please click these links to read Part 1Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of Frank’s blog post.


If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at – we could really use your help.

To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.