The facility was initially designed to house only adult males whose immigration status was undetermined.
Local reaction to the news is mixed as Karnes County suddenly becomes a focal point in an ongoing controversial national issue. An ongoing national debate continues about what should be done with undocumented or illegal immigrants coming in ever-increasing numbers from countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Karnes City resident Michael Vega questioned the spending of federal tax dollars to house the families for indefinite periods of time.
“It’s cheaper to just deport them back to their country,” Vega said. “People feel sorry for the kids that come, but what kind of parents send such small children away like that?”
Kenedy resident Jo Schuenemann also thinks the detainees should be sent home as soon as possible instead of being detained here for long periods of time.
“They need to be sent back to their home countries, and if they want to come to the U.S., start the process legally, as many others have done in the past,” Schuenemann said. “We do have laws, and we need to enforce the law.”
Others take a somewhat different view.
“My heart goes out to the children involved,” Vikki Pruski said. “The parents made the decision that they needed to leave their country, for what every reason that is. I wish everyone in this world had the opportunity that Americans have. I am not sure of the answer but as a Christian I think we need to help the children.”
Others expressed concern about possible health risks to the community as a result of housing the detainees at the detention center.
“What about the health issues?” Carol Martin asked. “Would you want a family member working there? As a former resident who still has family there I am totally against it.”
During an interview with The Karnes Countywide Monday, ICE Spokesperson Nina Pruneda declined to comment when asked about possible health risks to the general public. When asked if children at the facility will attend classes at Karnes City public schools, Pruneda also declined to comment.
Pruneda was however, able to provide some details about changes at the center.
“On July 11, 2014, ICE modified its contract with Karnes County, Texas, in order to transition the Karnes County Civil Detention Center (KCCDC) from a facility housing adult males to a female adults with children residential facility,” Pruneda said. “This was done in order to expand the agency’s capacity to house Central American female adults with children who’ve been apprehended while attempting to cross the border and placed into expedited removal proceedings. It is anticipated that KCCDC will begin housing Central American female adults with children within the next several weeks.”
While the exact number of detainees that will be housed at the facility is at this time undetermined, Pruneda said that the facility has a maximum capacity of 532 detainees.
Karnes City ISD Superintendent Jeanette Winn said that the school district is not prepared to accept hundreds of children into the school system, most of whom do not speak English and many who likely never have had any education at all.
Winn said that Danny Coronado, assistant warden at the facility, told her that the children detainees would likely receive classroom instruction inside the facility and would not be enrolled in local schools.
Coronado confirmed that a charter school would be set up so that school age detainees would receive instruction inside the facility and would not enter the local school system.
The facility is currently empty at this time, Coronado added, as the male detainees have all been transferred to other facilities in anticipation of the arrival of the detainee families.
The $32 million center opened its doors in 2012.
While local media and local officials were not invited to the opening, a handful of reporters from national and statewide newspaper and television media were escorted on a tour of the new facility by officials.
The civil detention facility model allows for greater unescorted movement, enhanced recreational opportunities and contact visitation, while maintaining a safe and secure atmosphere for detainees and staff.
In December 2010, ICE entered into an intergovernmental service agreement with Karnes County. The GEO Group Inc. was responsible for developing the center, in addition to operating the center as it opens its doors. ICE officials say this contract represents a significant milestone in the agency’s long-term effort to reform the immigration detention system, prioritizing the health and safety of detainees in custody while increasing federal oversight and improving the conditions of confinement within the system.
ICE’s detention reform efforts call for putting detention centers in strategic locations that maximize detainee access to local consulates and pro-bono legal services, reduce detainee transfers within the detention system and increase overall operational efficiencies, allowing for a reduction in detainees’ average length of stay in ICE custody.
When first announced, Karnes County officials expressed great excitement about the facility which was expected to bring 140 jobs and an annual payroll of $5 million to Karnes County. The project was expected to be a huge boost to the local economy, officials said at that time.
Not everyone was excited about the new facility, though.
A handful of protesters identifying themselves as a coalition of civil rights, faith and immigrants rights groups gathered outside the front gates demonstrating against the center which they called a “bad deal.”
“No matter how ‘civil’ the Karnes facility is supposed to be, it will continue to lock up immigrants who should not be detained,” said Krystal Gomez of the ACLU of Texas. “ICE should prioritize release and community-based alternatives to detention that allow people to remain with their families awaiting their hearings, rather than codifying a system of for-profit detention.”