By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
About 75 people attended what became a full-scale briefing on America’s crude
immigration detention centers. The student club of Amnesty International at South Texas College, Weslaco, convened this public event on June 10, inviting three important speakers.
Jay Johnson-Castro, founder of Border Ambassadors and director of the Rio Grande International Study Center based at Laredo Community College, spoke on the need to shut down the Hutto detention center, the notorious institution near Austin that imprisons about 200 children. Although Homeland Security has said it is not bothered by imprisoning children because the parents are in the prison with the children, and although conditions are better now than two years ago before an ACLU emergency lawsuit forced some changes, Hutto continues to be a disgrace: punitive and unnecessary. Johnson-Castro and many others want it closed. (On June 20, International Refugee Day, there is a planned protest rally at Hutto.)
A second speaker, Anayanse Garza, from the Southwest Workers’ Uni*n, described how her group had gotten involved recently in publicizing the hunger strike of inmates at Port Isabel’s detention center. (An Amnesty International report on injustices in detention centers was published in the spring, and good-sized coverage of it appeared in USA Today; this article reportedly circulated hand to hand inside Port Isabel and emboldened some inmates who organized and sustained the hunger strike for a good while.) Garza described how her group (SWU) contacted people inside and held several rallies outside the center, generating press coverage for the actions. Garza also detailed the case of Rama Carty, one of the leaders of the hunger strike; she said that Homeland Security has retaliated against Rama, moving him to Louisiana and trying to deport him quickly to Haiti, although he has never lived in Haiti in his life of 39 years.
Because of activists like Johnson-Castro and Garza, Hutto and Port Isabel have been in the news a bit lately, but I had virtually forgotten about the situation in the massive Raymondville immigrant internment camp, 50 minutes north of Brownsville. The third speaker at the Amnesty club forum, immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin, described the Raymondville situation. Up to 3,000 refugees and immigrants with contested legal status are held, out of sight, in spirit-breaking prison conditions behind barbed wire.
The Raymondville detention facility is a “tent city” — I have seen it from the outside, counting about a half dozen billowy tents apparently divided into “quads” — built in only 90 days in the summer of 2006. Made of cement slabs, steel ribcage, and canvas, this type of temporary housing has been used in Iraq to house soldiers for a few days at a time, between assignments, but, explained Goodwin, we are talking here of incarcerating people for 6 months to over 2 years in these tent monstrosities. Goodwin said that the Management & Training Corporation and Willacy County make a fortune from this facility and they found that 2,000 beds were not enough, so they built a more “traditional structure” behind the tents with an additional 1,000 beds. (This put Raymondville to work, a broken town of about 5,000.) There is more bed space in the detention centers south of San Antonio than in the rest of the U.S. combined, Goodwin explained.
But how much legal defense do these thousands get? Virtually none, according to Goodwin. Only one attorney and two paralegals are available in the major pro bono organization doing legal work here in the Valley. (And its activities are somewhat limited, as I understand it, by Bar Association rules.) At immigration court, individual detainees are not given a lawyer. No one here has the famous “right to an attorney, and if you cannot afford one, one will be provided.” Because of a loophole — deportation and related proceedings are considered civil matters and not criminal — the expected right to an attorney does not apply to these incarcerated thousands. If one is lucky enough to find a pro bono lawyer to take the case, great. If not, one needs to find one’s own private attorney and provide the funds. And all together in the Valley, with thousands of detainees, there are still only three attorneys who are actually board certified in immigration law!
The choice of the Valley for mass processing of immigrants was intentional on the part of ICE and DHS. Up in the Northeastern states, there are many firms doing pro bono work and more lawyers and support networks for this type of legal practice. That is why DHS moves prisoners down here, packing flights daily. The government can process these people — or as is often the case, delay processing them for six or eight months at will — with little intrusion by pesky lawyers.
I’ll save some of the details Goodwin related for later — mental health issues being ignored, some foot fungus problems ignored, poor food, poorly trained staff, etc — all hidden under tents.