The federal government is accepting bids for up to three new family detention centers that would house as many as 600 men, women and children fighting deportation cases.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a call for proposals last month and set June 16 as the deadline. New facilities are being considered on both coasts and on the Southwestern border. The agency calls for minimum-security residential facilities that would provide a "least restrictive, nonsecure setting" and provide schooling for children, recreational activities and access to religious services.
Family detention has been condemned by human rights groups and immigrant rights organizations as punitive and unnecessary. But immigration authorities said it ensures that immigrants show up for their court hearings and leave the country when ordered deported.
"Family detention has had the desired impact," ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. "We don't see as many families coming across the border. That automatic pass is no longer there."
There are currently two family facilities -- a former nursing home in Pennsylvania and a former prison in Texas. The T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, opened in 2006 and faced protests and lawsuits within the year charging that the children were living in substandard conditions. A settlement resulted in changes in how the children are treated.
New facilities would allow the government more flexibility and enable the agency to keep families together, Nantel said. In Los Angeles this week, three illegal immigrant mothers and their toddlers, including one American child, were among about 60 people discovered at a drop house used by smugglers. Because there is no family facility nearby, the women and children are being housed in a private shelter.
The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the proposed plan to open new family detention centers.
"After the horrible conditions that were revealed at the Hutto facility, it is very disappointing that the government appears to want to produce more immigration prisons for families and children," said Ahilan Arulanantham, a staff attorney at the Southern California office.
Arulanantham said most families do not pose a safety or flight risk and should not be detained. Instead, he said, they should post bonds, wear electronic monitors or be part of an intensive supervision program.
"There are other ways to deter illegal immigration without imprisoning children," he said. "This shows that we have become addicted to incarceration as a method to solving our problems, which it is obviously not."
In extreme cases, Arulanantham said, he could see families being housed in some sort of halfway house, but not a former prison run by a private prison company.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to review the proposals and make a decision within several months, Nantel said. The bids could come from county governments or private companies. The facilities would house up to 200 people each, about 150 juveniles and 50 adults. Authorities estimate detainees would be kept at the center for between 20 and 30 days.
The proposal calls for minimal security facilities and refers to the centers as residential family shelters, but says the contractor should structure programs "designed to prevent escapes" and should provide a plan that "monitors resident movement and physically counts residents." Nobody with a criminal record would be admitted.
Corrections Corp. of America senior vice president Damon Hininger said he was aware of the request for proposals and that the company was "taking a look at it." The company already runs several immigration detention centers, including Hutto.
Hutto has 450 beds, and as of last week there were about 150 people being held in family detention there. If new facilities are built, Nantel said the agency would consider transferring the families out of Hutto and using it as an adult immigration detention center.
"Running a residential facility in what was a former prison, that was a challenge," she said. "There have been lessons learned out of Hutto."
When the center opened, children were given hospital scrubs to wear, forbidden to have toys and allowed only one hour of recreation per day, attorneys said. As a result of the settlement, children are allowed to wear pajamas, move freely around the center and bring toys into their rooms. There also have been changes made to the facility, including adding individual bathrooms, adding murals and replacing metal doors.
Given the national security goals of the Department of Homeland Security, advocates said they are skeptical about future family centers.
"They really do have this penal system model in their heads," said Andrea Black, coordinator of Detention Watch Network, a coalition advocating reform of immigration detention and deportation. "I think it's going to be challenging for them to actually be able to run a family facility that is nonpunitive given their current philosophy and practices."
The need to imprison families stems from the presence of so many illegal families sneaking across the border or hiding in the United States, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group that advocates a reduction in the number of immigrants.
"This is really recognizing the realities of the illegal alien population," he said. "They used to let everybody out and trust them to come back. That hasn't worked out, to say the least. This is simply the pendulum moving back the other way."