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ICE Opens Family Detention Center In Texas To Reporters


The Trump administration this week announced plans to work around a federal court order that limits how long the government can detain migrant children. The new rule would allow the government to hold kids and their mothers indefinitely while they await their asylum proceedings. That's far beyond the 20-day maximum that is currently the rule, and the administration is touting a family-friendly detention center in South Texas where they will be held.

NPR's John Burnett got a tour of that facility today. He joins us now from member station KSTX in San Antonio. And John, first, tell us more about where this facility is and what they showed you.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Sure, Audie. They call it the South Texas Family Residential Center, which is a euphemistic name for a family jail. It's in the town of Dilley, about an hour south here of San Antonio. It's the nation's only major family detention center. It has a capacity for 2,400. There are 900 there now, and they expect to increase that quite a bit when they put this new plan under Trump in place in the next - in two more months. So it's run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. It's operated by a giant for-profit corrections company called CoreCivic.

And I mean, let's say Dilley is 10 times better than the austere and inhumane Border Patrol cells that these families came from. You know, there's no razor wire. They showed us the commissary, the beauty shop, a soccer field, the gymnasium, the salad bar, the lunchroom and the library. Here's a migrant mother and her daughter reading together.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: But Audie, it's still very much a detention center. They are not free to leave. And an immigration lawyer who visited there once called it a gilded cage.

CORNISH: A gilded cage. I mean, what do we know about the history of this facility?

BURNETT: Well, quite a bit. It opened in 2014 under President Obama, when there was an earlier surge of families crossing the border illegally asking for asylum. And Obama tried to do exactly what Trump wants to do now, and that is hold families against their will and let that be a deterrent to future asylum-seekers. But it didn't work out. A year later a judge told them they couldn't hold kids with their parents, as you said, for more than 20 days under the Flores settlement. It's just a bad environment for children.

So it sort of lost its punitive punch, and the population has really been low down there for years. So now comes Trump, after he had to cancel family separation last summer. In September, he vowed to restore the deterrent power of family detention. And so here we are. They plan to put the new rules in place in two months. They expect to hold mothers and children there for up to two months. ICE director Matt Albence was on hand for the media tour, and here's how he described how they'll use the facility.


MATTHEW ALBENCE: Some families (ph) will come here and will be kept in custody until such time as their immigration court proceedings have completed. If they're not eligible to remain in this country and the judge orders them removed, we're going to have to actually execute that removal of them.

CORNISH: What did child welfare experts say about this facility when families were detained there during the Obama administration?

BURNETT: Well, Audie, there's been bitter criticism from the beginning. And I remember a few years ago I talked to the dean of the social work school at UT Austin, and he had actually evaluated nearly 50 kids and mothers there seeking asylum.

And he told me, yes, they have crochet classes and Disney movies, and the living areas are called Red Bird, Blue Butterfly and Brown Bear. But he said the children are still detainees, and many were already traumatized when they arrived. He documented an 8-year-old girl who regressed to breastfeeding from her mom, an 11-year-old boy who began bed-wetting after being held apart from his mom.

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett.

Thanks for your reporting.

BURNETT: You're welcome Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 26, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the headline said a family detention center in Texas would soon reopen, while, in fact, it had not closed.

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