Texas facility now holding soon-to-be expelled migrant families

An immigration detention center in south Texas has been converted into a staging ground to hold migrant families with children who the Trump administration seeks to expel from the U.S. without a court hearing, asylum interview or consultation with lawyers.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention center in Karnes City, Texas, is being used exclusively to hold migrant parents and children processed under an emergency pandemic-era policy that requires their swift expulsion from U.S. soil, the agency and outside lawyers told CBS News.

An ICE spokesperson confirmed the Karnes facility is now only housing “Title 42 family units prior to their expulsion” through deportation flights. The term “Title 42” refers to the process the Trump administration has created to expel border-crossers under public health laws during the pandemic, rather than placing them in deportation proceedings or allowing them to request forms of U.S. humanitarian refuge, like asylum.

The Trump administration has said the expulsions, which were authorized through orders issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are necessary to prevent potentially migrants from spreading COVID-19 inside detention facilities and infecting border officials and the broader U.S. public.

More than 200,000 expulsions have been carried out across the U.S.-Mexico border since March, including of 8,800 unaccompanied children, whose legal protection have been effectively suspended during the pandemic.

The Karnes facility is one of three detention centers overseen by ICE designed to hold undocumented families with children. The facility, which is run by the for-profit prison company, GEO Group, is located southeast of San Antonio, more than 130 miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border. According to ICE records, it can hold 830 migrants.

Its location means that officials have been transporting migrant families at least more than 100 miles from the southern border — and nearly 200 miles if originating from the highly-transited Rio Grande Valley — to then hold them in a detention facility with active COVID-19 cases before expelling them under an order with the stated purpose of containing the virus.

“The twisted irony is that the alleged purpose of the CDC’s authority under Title 42 is to promote public health and avoid COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons. Yet, by concentrating the detention of families in Title 42 at the Karnes family prison, where there have been multiple confirmed cases of COVID-19, ICE increases the risk of transmission,” Andrea Meza, an attorney with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), told CBS News.

Meza and her group, which represents detained migrant families, said their clients processed under regular immigration laws were abruptly transferred out of the Karnes facility to another family detention center in Dilley, Texas last week, without any prior notice. Communicating with families who remain at the Karnes facility while officials prepare to expel them has been difficult, Meza said.

“The intent is clear — with all families in one place, ICE can cut them off from the outside world and from lawyers who can help them seek protection in the U.S,” Meza added. “ICE has shut off phone access for many families and does not provide them with contact information for free legal services.”

ICE confirmed Thursday that families in expulsions proceedings are not allowed to consult with lawyers.

The Trump administration’s decision to use the Karnes facility as a detention center for migrant parents and children in rapid expulsion proceedings comes after a federal judge ordered it to stop holding minors in hotels beyond limited three-day stays.

Prior to that ruling in early September, ICE had been using hotels to hold more than 2,200 unaccompanied minors and 600 families with children while it arranged to expel them. The administration set up this unregulated hotel detention system because it could not expel some unaccompanied children and families directly to Mexico, unlike most single adults.

In a ruling that was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles said the hotel detention system violated the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, in part because of the limited access to lawyers children were being granted.

The court settlement governs the care of minors in U.S. immigration custody, mandating the government to place these children in safe and sanitary facilities, grant them access to counsel and continuously pursue their release from detention. Gee has ruled that children in expulsion proceedings are also entitled to these protections.

Gee was informed that families in Title 42 proceedings were being held at the Karnes facility during a hearing Friday, but she has yet to rule on whether the detention of minors there complies with the Flores agreement.

Meza, the RAICES attorney, does not believe it does. She sent a letter on Wednesday to Andrea Sheridan Ordin, an independent monitor assigned by Gee to oversee the government’s compliance with the Flores settlement, asking her to conduct an investigation.

“If Class Members and their families are denied access to phones, impeded from meeting with counsel, and deported even after having requested meetings with RAICES, then the government violates the spirit of this mandatory provision,” Meza wrote in her letter.

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