The story surfaced this week as activists and mothers held in immigration lockup continue their efforts to block state officials from licensing the Karnes County Residential Center, a facility run by a for-profit prison company that contracts with federal immigration authorities to detain some 500 migrant mothers and children – many of whom have fled extreme violence in South and Central America, according to attorneys who represent the families.
Despite criticism from child welfare experts who say that jailing kids for any amount of time can be detrimental to healthy child development, last week the Texas Department of Family Protective Services announced it would grant the Karnes detention center a six-month provisional license to operate as a state-approved child care facility. Critics worry Texas’ licensing of Karnes could help the feds wiggle around an order from a federal judge last year to fundamentally reform how the government detains migrant kids.
E.G.S. (as she’s known in court documents) and another mother held at Karnes are part of a lawsuit filed last week seeking to block the state from licensing the facility. In a sworn declaration filed with that case, E.G.S. says her daughter was sexually harassed and then ultimately molested by another adult held at the facility.
E.G.S. says she fled El Salvador with her daughter in March after MS-13 gang members who murdered her brother-in-law started showing up at her house to take turns raping her. The men had begun to threaten her 12-year-old daughter when she decided to leave. The mother says in her declaration, “There is nowhere safe for my daughter and I to live in El Salvador.”
Soon after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the mother and her daughter were detained and interviewed by an immigration agent, who, according to the mother’s affidavit, “told me that he didn’t have anything to do with the problems in my country.” Once transferred to Karnes, the mother says her interview with an asylum officer was also problematic – “I did not talk about being raped because my daughter does not know what happened to me and she was present in the room throughout my interview because she is afraid to leave my side in the jail.” The asylum officer, she says, determined she didn’t have a case.
E.G.S. and her daughter were placed into a room at Karnes with an unrelated woman and her child — something that's usually not permitted in state-licensed facilities child care centers but allowed under DFPS' new rule to license the immigration lockups. In a court affidavit, the mother says the other woman quickly made her feel uncomfortable, asking E.G.S.’s daughter to sleep in her bed with her. At one point the woman flashed the girl. Jokes from the woman turned sexual and started to cross the line, she says. In her affidavit, the mother says she told a Karnes guard, asking for a room transfer. She says the guard refused and gave her an “ugly” response.
Eventually, E.G.S. says the woman started to follow her daughter into the shower as her daughter was getting dressed. At one point in mid-April, she says “I saw the woman grab my daughter’s private parts.” After that, guards finally moved them to another room.
The allegation came around the time state officials were inspecting Karnes ahead of granting the facility a license. DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins told us via email: “I am not aware of that specific allegation or any other, not [sic] could I comment if I knew because of confidentiality.” He also told us that any allegation of abuse or neglect reported at the facility would have been investigated by DFPS and that the license for Karnes was only issued “once the facility...complied with state standards for a family residential operation.”
An ICE representative didn’t respond to our request for comment, but agency spokeswoman Nina Pruñeda told the Texas Observer yesterday that DFPS, ICE and the local sheriff’s officials “concluded that information provided by the minor could not be corroborated, and the case lacked evidence to pursue any further action.”
We spoke with E.G.S. by phone yesterday through a translator, who told us that she's now afraid of two things — being deported at any moment back to a country where she says she and her daughter face gang rape and possible death, and what might happen to her daughter if they remain in the Karnes detention center. She told us her daughter seems depressed, rarely eats and no longer plays with other children.
Pro-bono immigration attorneys with the nonprofit RAICES have filed multiple petitions asking immigration officials to grant E.G.S. a second interview, saying they haven’t yet heard her full case for asylum (which they say is strong). It’s unclear whether her allegations of abuse could derail the licensing process for Karnes or another South Texas detention center that houses asylum-seekers. A Travis County judge last week issued a temporary restraining order blocking the license; a court hearing is set for this Friday.