Sonia Hernandez shushes her 3-year-old son, Moises, as she glances at a nearby black-jacketed guard standing by a door. The guard stares back.
"They don't like it when kids yell," the 33-year-old El Salvadorian tells me in Spanish. Moises stamps his foot and grimaces. Hernandez, eyes rimmed with exhaustion, reaches out to soothe her son.
Hernandez and her three children have been confined in the Karnes County Residential Center for six months, living with 600 other inmates in a beige brick building tucked down a South Texas country road about an hour southeast of San Antonio. Texan and American flags hang on short poles in the lobby, where I must relinquish my purse, cell phone, and even pen and notebook before passing through a metal detector and series of locked doors.
The entire population of Karnes are immigrant mothers and their children who, according to lawyers working with the inmates, have come to the US seeking asylum; the vast majority are from Central America.
As we talk in the visitation room, Hernandez bursts into tears — days earlier a judge denied her request for a cash bond that could have allowed her and her kids to leave the facility. She was hoping to reunite with her husband, who had been working undocumented in Maryland for several years, sending money to his family back home.
But because Hernandez had entered the US undocumented in 2007 before being caught and sent home, she is now ineligible for asylum. Her kids are eligible, but a judge has refused to let any of them out of detention, dubbing the family a "flight risk" who will likely not appear for future court dates.
"I want to take out my heart and tell the judge I didn't come here because I want to break the laws of this country," Hernandez says. "I did it because I care about my children."
She tells me guards have threatened her with deportation and with separation from her children if they get boisterous. Moises, she says, has begun to suffer chronic headaches since being detained. Ten-year-old Valentin has lost weight, and Abby, Hernandez's striking 13-year-old daughter, often breaks down crying.
Abby stares listlessly at the floor while I'm there — until I ask if she misses El Salvador.
"I don't want to go back," she says, scowling. "One of the gang members told me he was going to have sex with me. We did nothing wrong to end up here."
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The US government recently began inflicting harsher penalties on undocumented immigrant families than it inflicts on individual undocumented immigrants, forcing all mother-and-child arrivals to spend months in for-profit family detention centers. Solo immigrants seeking asylum can pay bonds and pledge they'll show up to court cases — but last summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began denying mothers with children from bonding out of detainment.
ICE claimed detention would deter the recent "mass migration" of families seeking refuge from Central America, which the agency declared a national security threat. But last month a federal judge said ICE's policy targeting all families for the purpose of deterring future migrants is illegal. ICE can still use other justifications to detain families — for instance, if a family member has previously attempted to enter the US, like Hernandez. But the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Rights has filed another lawsuit claiming family detention for any reason is illegal because it subjects non-delinquent minors to months of incarceration and harmful conditions.
Meanwhile, detainees wait in limbo inside Karnes' walls. Lawyers have filed complaints alleging guards have raped inmates at the facility, a lack of baby formula and warm clothing, rules prohibiting infants from crawling on the floor, and threats of deportation by staff. DHS has proposed spending more than $345 million next year to further expand family detention, and admitted last year that the newest facility will cost $298 per resident per day. The GEO Group, the for-profit company that runs Karnes, is currently earning $26 million in annual revenues from the facility — and it will earn an additional $20 million per year after Karnes' expansion is completed by the end of 2015.
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Last summer, news broke of a surge of unaccompanied migrants and migrant families from Central America, driven north by worsening gang and drug violence. The Department of Homeland Security called it a "mass migration" that could be curbed only if foreigners believed it wasn't easy to enter the US. The deterrent: family detention centers and a new policy preventing mothers and children from paying bonds in exchange for relative freedom until their court dates. Instead, the families must remain incarcerated.
"The government thought that if the women and families could pay bonds to get out of detention, other people would come to the US," says University of Texas sociology professor Nestor Rodriguez. But Rodriguez, who specializes in immigration, adds that in his years of research in Central America, migrants never mentioned the ability to be freed on bond as a reason to attempt to enter the US. "It doesn't appear as a major variable motivating migration."
Beth Werlin, policy director for the American Immigration Council, tells VICE News the US government had "moved away from family detention" as a policy in recent years — until last summer. Traditionally, she explains, immigrant detention has been used if there is a safety threat or if authorities perceive a high likelihood that someone won't appear in court.
"Last summer, what we saw was a border security policy that made no sense, that claimed we were going to deter families and refugees from coming here by detaining them and sending a message that others would be detained and deported," Werlin says. "These families are fleeing violence and persecution, and having a policy of jailing them wasn't deterring them from coming to the US."
Immigrant mothers began fighting in court to pay bonds for their families' freedom — but while it has been possible to win bond from immigration judges, the bond amount is often prohibitively expensive, as much as $7,500.
"I call it the 'mommy penalty,'" Barbara Hines, the founder of the University of Texas's Immigration Law Clinic, tells VICE News. "The government has been fighting every bond case, which is a drastic change in policy."
In June, the first family detention facility, a temporary "emergency" center with 672 beds, opened in Artesia, New Mexico. DHS officials made it clear the agency intended to deport as many of the families as possible.
"Increased [detention] capacity and resources will allow ICE to return unlawful migrants from Central America to their home countries more quickly," DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said last June.
In August, the ACLU and Immigration Law Clinic brought suit, alleging that the Artesia facility was a "deportation mill" providing immigrants no access to legal services. The facility closed this past December.
Meanwhile, Karnes had opened in August, and the Hernandez family was among the inaugural group of people incarcerated there. The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas — ICE's third and largest center — opened in December and is run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America. It is expected to hold 2,000 inmates by the end of this year.
The US opened a large family detention center in South Texas back in 2006, but three years later Hines and other rights advocates successfully sued to close the facility because of its harrowing conditions. Kids were forced to wear prison uniforms and spend hours in cells with their mothers; they were also denied education or medical care. At Karnes and Dilley, children are loaned street clothes and can attend a makeshift school. Nevertheless, detainment of children is illegal, the Center for Constitutional Rights says in its lawsuit.
A 1997 federal court decision, known as the Flores settlement, set minimal standards for the treatment of undocumented immigrant children. The settlement mandated that ICE is required to release a child unless detention is required "to ensure that child's safety," CCR's complaint notes.
"ICE's no-release policy plainly breaches the requirement that defendants minimize the detention of children," the complaint says. "ICE has detained children with their mothers en masse regardless of whether they were flight risks, dangerous, or whether custodians were qualified to care for them."
The complaint also notes that ICE has broken the law by housing children in lockdown facilities; ICE is required to house non-delinquent minors only in non-secure facilities that are licensed by child welfare providers.
A groundbreaking federal court order issued February 20 by Judge James Boasberg of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia requires ICE to stop detaining families "for the purpose of deterring future immigration to the United States." The order mandates that ICE give a bond option to families who pass a credible fear test, which shows they have a credible argument for asylum status.
"To use a factor such as national security interests about one person's individualized freedom raises constitutional concerns," Werlin says. "We can't detain someone in order to send messages to other people."
The judge's order means it should be easier for families to leave detention, but currently ICE is still "reviewing the court's decision," according to a statement.
"ICE's family residential centers are used as an effective and humane alternative to maintain family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or return to their home countries," the statement says. "ICE ensures that these residential centers operate in an open environment, which includes medical care, play rooms, social workers, educational services, and facilitates access to legal counsel."
ICE called a meeting with about 80 incarcerated women last week in Karnes to tell them they were eligible for bonds, according to immigration attorney Linda Brand Miller, who is defending Hernandez in addition to many other people in the facility. The women — they were all first-time entrants to the US who passed the credible fear test — filled out paperwork detailing their cases and now await responses from ICE.
"There's no consistency in the system," Brand Miller says. Some judges have allowed moms to stay when their kids qualified for bond, while other judges have denied both parties bond. "ICE has the complete ability to let them all stay in the US."
According to a spokesman, ICE has no plans to shutter Karnes or Dilley, and a spokesman for the GEO Group said that Karnes' expansion will continue as planned.
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Hernandez and her children had spent just one hour in the US when Border Patrol seized them. She had paid a coyote — a professional smuggler of migrants — $6,000 to lead the foursome on buses from El Salvador and to cross the Rio Grande in an inflatable boat. After that, the family, along with two other moms and their kids, began walking north in Texas.
When they reached the town of Hidalgo, immigration agents caught the whole group and took them to a Border Patrol holding cell. These are known by migrants as hieleras [ice boxes] because of how cold they are.
Border Patrol took away all sweaters and jackets, and stuck the Hernandezes in a room with about 100 other new arrivals. There were no beds and only one bathroom stall; bright overhead lights stayed on throughout the night. All five days they were there, Hernandez says, the family had no access to toothbrushes, showers, or changes of clothing. They were given Mylar blankets to sleep.
"We slept on the floor, on top of each other, freezing," Hernandez says. "The guards would hit on the walls from the outside yelling, and told us all we had to sign deportation papers. They took us outside at midnight and made us count. My children couldn't stop crying, asking when we would get out of there."
Brand Miller, who has been shown hieleras by ICE, says the uncomfortable conditions are maintained in order to get people to sign deportation papers. Emily Creighton of the Center for Immigration Policy says that the conditions are a "constitutional violation" for inmates, since authorities are using a punitive approach for people in civil, not criminal, detention.
"Every single person we've spoken with is cold… and we've heard that people are made to sign documents without knowing what they mean," Creighton says. "It's completely unacceptable."
Multiple complaints about the hieleras have been brought forth, as documented by the watchdog website Hold CBP Accountable. One pending case filed in February to the US Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review claims DHS committed "multiple violations" of a 15-year-old migrant's liberty by "failing to provide sufficient food, water, clothing, shelter, and for committing the federal crime of failing to report child abuse."
A recent report by the Office of the Inspector General found that temperatures in the air-conditioned hieleras ranged between 50 and 76 degrees, which the agency deemed compliant with standards.
Border Patrol spokesman Carlos Lazo told VICE News the temperature in holding facilities is "room temperature," or about 70 degrees, and that migrants feel cold because they come from "100-degree desert heat," particularly in the summer. He did not comment on allegations of threats of deportation by guards, but said that Border Patrol agents "have taken extraordinary measures to care for these children and families." CBP runs 42 of these facilities along the border, he notes.
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Even women who have passed the credible fear test successfully win asylum in court just 1.5 percent of the time without a lawyer. The other 98.5 percent are deported to their home countries, analysis done by Syracuse University shows. Those who have a lawyer — about one-fourth of women, all via pro bono attorneys like Brand Miller appearing at detention centers — win asylum in just over a quarter of cases, while the rest are deported.
But Werlin suggests the results have been different since the summer influx of asylum seekers — 14 of 18 women who were incarcerated in Artesia and then represented by the American Immigration Lawyers Association have been granted asylum, suggesting the recent flood of migrants have legitimate reasons for fleeing their home countries.
Patrizia Martinez, another Salvadorian mother who I speak with over lunch at a San Antonio Tex-Mex restaurant, was one of the relatively lucky ones; with the help of non-profit groups, she and her 8-year-old son were released from Karnes in January.
"When I left detention, I was afraid of everyone," the 35-year-old tells me. "I couldn't believe that good people existed here."
The GEO Group has said it gives workshops to women to help them navigate the system, but Hernandez and other inmates with whom I spoke told me they'd received no such training.
Inmates sleep in bunk beds, eight to a room. Each inmate is loaned a few sets of shirts and pants. They must request additional clothing in writing.
Daily life in Karnes follows a strict regiment: Inmates must check in with guards three times a day — the first check-in is at 7:30am — at a monitoring post in the center of the facility. There are three designated meal times in the cafeteria; food may not leave the area. The only way mothers can get snacks for their children is by purchasing chips or cookies in the Karnes vending machine. Machines to which inmates have access charge more than machines in the lobby; a bottle of water for inmates costs $1.75, while in the lobby it costs $1.25.
In order for the families to have money, outsiders must contribute to a fund, or the women must work inside the facility. Three hours of work (cooking or cleaning) earns $3. But women with children 5 and younger are forbidden from working since they must always tend to their kids, so Hernandez has been ineligible for a job.
Hines and other rights advocates filed a legal complaint to DHS requesting they investigate multiple detainees' reports of rape, and a former inmate told me she knew of a guard who would exchange food for sexual favors. ICE recently released a report that concluded the accusations were unfounded. The agency found no proof any women had been raped, but did find that two guards had been having sex in the laundry room.
"This report is a testament to work and efforts by ICE employees who remain committed to providing a safe and secure environment to all individuals in custody," an ICE spokesman told VICE News.
Pablo Paez, the GEO Group's vice-president for corporate communications, also says the rape allegations were false.
"The Karnes County Residential Center provides a safe, clean, and family friendly environment for mothers and children awaiting required processing by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency," Paez wrote in an email to VICE News. "The Center provides high quality care, and our company strongly denies any allegations to the contrary."
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"Only I know what has happened, and what I'm liberating my children from," Hernandez tells me in the visitation room.
As a community leader in the Salvadoran village of Amando López, she'd asked police to combat growing gang violence, drug trafficking, and arms trafficking. After she did that, a local gang targeted her. They first attacked in February 2014.
"One cop who was my friend told me it would be better to leave than to report the crime," she says, recalling the gang's initial physical attack. "A few months later, the gang members killed him."
She kept quiet and remained in her village until July 7. That's when the group broke into her home. She was able to lock the children in another room before one of the gang members raped her. The family fled seven days later.
"I'd rather [US immigration officials] shoot me," she says, "than to return to my country."
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman