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ICE's 'soft' detention strategy at new immigration facility begs the question: Why do lowest-risk detainees need to be detained at all?

Photo: Photos by Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Photos by Michael Barajas

The Karnes County Civil Detention Center has outdoor courtyards, basketball courts, and a soccer field, all designed to make it feel less like a prison.

Photo: , License: N/A

Immigrant detainees sleep eight to a room inside dormitory-like units

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Gary Mead, head of enforcement and removal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, tours the Karnes County Civil Detention Center for immigrants.

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KARNES COUNTY — This month, the first asylum seekers and border crossers landing in the sparkling new Karnes County Civil Detention Center will be among the first to experience Immigration and Customs Enforcement's kinder, gentler approach to immigrant detention.

An hour drive southeast of San Antonio, the 608-bed facility still smelling of fresh paint and new carpet stretches across a 29-acre swath of farmland in rural South Texas. Rather than prison cells, jumpsuits, and barbed wire fencing, detainees here will sleep in eight-bed dormitory-style quarters, wearing more cozy attire like jeans and T-shirts. The facility's high walls enclose lush green courtyards with volleyball courts, an AstroTurfed soccer field, and basketball hoops, where detainees are free to roam throughout the day.

The Karnes facility, the newest piece of the nation's sprawling immigrant-detention network encompassing some 250 detention centers, is perhaps the most tangible evidence of the detention reforms sparked by years of complaints from human rights groups and immigrants' advocates claiming shoddy medical care, abuse, and lax oversight plaguing ICE facilities. Although ICE says Karnes is a sign of things to come, critics worry the agency may be simply expanding a broken system in need of sweeping overhaul, saying other reforms the agency rolled out in 2009 have yet to score meaningful results system-wide.

The Karnes facility, set to house low-risk male detainees and asylum seekers, marks a shift away from agency's reliance on jails and prison-like facilities to detain undocumented immigrants, said Gary Mead, executive associate director of ICE's enforcement and removal operations overseeing the agency's detention facilities. "We're not in the business of holding people for long-term punitive reasons, you know, serving a sentence," Mead said during a tour of the Karnes facility last week. "It was never our authority or responsibility to punish people or to correct their behavior. … We have to treat them very differently than a state prison system or a county jail system would treat people in their custody."

Still, prison-like conditions persist across ICE's detention network, said Andrea Black, executive director of Detention Watch Network. The new Karnes facility, she remarked, proves ICE's commitment to detain even low-risk undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, who she says would be better suited for alternatives to detention. "It looks like we're still using a penal-type structure and framework for immigrant detention," Black said. "Our question remains why this lowest risk category needs to be detained at all."

ICE spends on average $122 a day to detain an undocumented immigrant, while alternatives, such as the agency's ankle bracelet monitoring programs, top out at around $15 per day, Mead said, adding that ICE has worked to expand alternatives from 18,000 immigrants to 23,000 in such programs over the past year.

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