President Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant families is quickly morphing into the expansion of an existing policy of detaining families. At the end of June, the federal government announced that an immigration prison—the Port Isabel Service Processing Center—would be its “primary family reunification and removal center,” though it has since walked that policy back.
We work out of this facility and have visited it many times. Call it what they like, this is a prison. That Port Isabel is at the center of the administration’s new policy to expand family detention only underscores that family detention is not a humane or acceptable alternative to family separation.
Port Isabel houses adults in conditions of abuse and isolation that effectively prevent many migrants from making even meritorious claims in immigration court. Driving onto the site, visitors and detainees go through a security checkpoint. Inside, visitors go through metal detectors before waiting for the first of a series of doors to open slowly and then shut loudly with the distinctive clank of heavy steel.
In the cells that stretch beyond additional layers of locked doors, a guard admitted to sexually abusing multiple women as recently as 2008. Five years later, another former guard raped a detainee, for which he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. And while all eyes were focused on families being separated in federal courthouses last month, 39-year-old Ronald Cruz died two days after being sent to Port Isabel.
On the way to the Port Isabel detention center you will see natural beauty, but few lawyers. Almost 300 miles from the nearest law school and closest big city, San Antonio, Port Isabel is a world away from a large legal community, and parents who are detained there are unlikely to get sound legal advice. A 2015 study found that only 18 percent of people held there had a lawyer. With Immigration and Customs Enforcement preparing to use Port Isabel as the staging ground for an expansion of its family imprisonment and removal operations, the lack of legal assistance available will grow. Right now, the best chance many Port Isabel detainees have of talking with a lawyer turns on the capacity of a small number of committed but under-resourced non-profit organizations and the generosity of a handful of private attorneys.
To claim that the outcome of legal proceedings is just when the government is represented by a trained lawyer and migrants of any age, much less children, frequently stand alone, is to lose sight of what justice means. For many of the people that we have represented in Port Isabel, confinement also means losing a job and being moved hundreds of miles away from home. Immigration imprisonment wreaks havoc on families by throwing spouses into uncertainty and thrusting children into a torrent of emotional trauma. Not surprisingly, these consequences push detained migrants to give up solid legal claims just to avoid spending more time locked up in Port Isabel.
In the Río Grande Valley of South Texas, where our family roots and law practice are, the human devastation of immigration policies is nothing new. When large numbers of migrant families and children traveling alone began coming to the United States in the summer of 2014, many arrived in the Valley. They were held at local Border Patrol stations in frigid conditions that earned them the nickname “hieleras,” or “refrigerators.”
Since U.S. Attorney General Sessions announced the Trump administration’s family separation policy, the Valley once more became the central site for family devastation. In the federal courthouse in downtown McAllen, one of us met with dozens of parents who had no clue they were about to lose their children. Those who were aware had no idea where their children were and no plan for finding out.
Now that ICE has tapped the Port Isabel Service Processing Center as the key location in its efforts to reunite families, the Valley is certain to remain an important site of immigration law enforcement activity. President Trump suggested where he stands. “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came,” he tweeted.
If the administration’s goal is to punish migrants and steam roll them out of the United States, Port Isabel is an ideal prison to effectuate the president’s vision. But if this country wants to retain some semblance of respect for the people who have dared to seek a better life here, then turning to Port Isabel is ludicrous. Family detention will remain as ugly a stain on our justice system as family separation was.
A version of this article appeared in the Texas Tribune on July 3, 2018 with the title “Resisting Family Separation and Family Detention in South Texas.” It was written with Carlos M. García an attorney at García & García Attorneys at Law.