A massive immigration holding center in Texas is hardly being used amid the worsening border situation as the Biden administration instead opts to dole out multimillion, taxpayer-funded contracts to house families in hotels.
The Biden administration has spent $87 million to put families in seven hotels across Arizona and Texas rather than place them in similar permanent family facilities, according to two people familiar with the administration’s plans.
Sources said the Karnes County Family Residential Center is far better equipped to hold hundreds of families even amid the coronavirus pandemic but claimed Biden officials are making a “PR play” and are concerned about the “optics” of holding people at a facility that is operated by a for-profit group. Hotels holding families are overseen by the Family Endeavors nonprofit group and are not required to be licensed because they are not holding people more than 72 hours.
“You’re sacrificing treatment of the very people you’re saying you want to protect,” the first person said.
Karnes cost $57 million and is under a five-year contract between the county and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a state-licensed facility to hold up to 835 people who arrived at the border as part of a family group. It is technically a detention facility, but unlike other facilities that hold adults, it is designed with classrooms and recreational spaces for children and comes with amenities not seen in jails or prisons.
“Even with COVID restrictions, which is 75%, there’s still hundreds of beds available,” said one person with firsthand knowledge of ICE’s use of the facility. “So it’s really interesting that they’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t have the capacity for families,’ and yet there’s like all these beds that have been sitting empty during this search.”
In February, the Biden administration ordered Karnes to begin releasing people within 72 hours rather than holding them up to 20 days, the first person said, making it even easier to get people in and out.
Karnes is a “reception and processing center” for families after they have been taken into custody at the border by Border Patrol agents. Due to a 2015 update in a court ruling known as the Flores settlement agreement, families can not be held by ICE more than 20 days. Families are held in bunk bed suites that include televisions and have access to the grounds. Meals are served three times a day in a buffet-style cafeteria. The grounds include two soccer fields, a gymnasium, and an outdoor playground.
The residents undergo full medical exams, an X-ray screening for tuberculosis, and receive any vaccinations they are missing. Mental health services are also available. Each person is given six full sets of clothing, hygiene products, and a telephone calling card. They have access to in-room phones, laundry rooms, 24/7 refrigerated snacks, and medication. Classrooms for a variety of ages are inside and have continued operating amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Family Endeavors, the nonprofit group given an $87 million no-bid contract to house 1,200 people at a time in seven hotels, has not revealed if residents at the hotels will be given keycards and thus able to explore the grounds freely. The entire floors of some hotels have been mapped out in internal documents as quarantine spaces for coronavirus patients.
“They’re putting people in worse conditions and not using the tools that they have, that have gone through the oversight, that meet the standards, that have the third-party accreditation,” the first source said. “They’re going and spending tens of millions of dollars to create these makeshift situations.”
ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.