Immigration reformers reeling from the Senate’s passage of the Sanctuary Cities Bill last week marched from the Capitol to the Travis County Jail on Monday evening.
Demonstrators gathered to observe World Refugee Day and protest recent changes in immigration legislation and an immigration detention center under construction in Southeast Texas.
Marchers carried signs bearing slogans such as “dignity not detention” and “keep families together.” Organizers of Grassroots Leadership, an activist organization that sponsored the march, called for reforms to Secure Communities, an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement program protestors say has led to a dramatic increase in detentions and deportations in Travis County.
The Secure Communities program requires local jails to send fingerprint information from inmates to federal officials to verify their immigration status. Inmates without legal residency would be subject to detainment and deportation. According to the immigration agency’s website, the program helps remove undocumented aliens who threaten public safety. The Texas Senate passed the Sanctuary Cities Bill on Wednesday that mandates the enforcement of Secure Communities by local law enforcement.
Geoff Valdes, a volunteer with Texans United for Families, said the Secure Communities legislation has led to nearly 1,900 deportations in Travis County since 2008.
“We strongly believe that immigrant detention is a crime and a human rights violation,” Valdes said.
Grassroots Leadership organizer Bob Libal said while immigration officials announced some reforms to the legislation last week, the changes did not address the root of the problem. He said several states including Illinois, New York and Massachusetts have opted out of the program.
“The stated goal of Secure Communities is to remove people who are convicted felons, but in reality the majority of the people who have been deported have either been convicted of no crime whatsoever or have only been charged with minor violations,” Libal said.
Protesters also sought to bring awareness to a detention facility being built in Karnes County by the privately owned prison corporation, the GEO Group, who declined to comment on the issue.
Libal said the GEO Group did not seek public input when it began construction on the facility, and he hopes the rally will cause ICE officials to reconsider contracting with the company.
“Several [GEO Group] facilities have been closed for situations like multiple suicides,” he said. “They’ve had some major uprisings of their immigrant prisons in West Texas because of things like inadequate medical care. ICE is saying that this is a model of what they want their detention facilities to look like.”
ICE spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda said in an email officials had not received any official reports of issues with the condition or treatment of inmates at GEO Group facilities.
“The Detention Service managers work with both the facility and field office staff in order to gain or maintain compliance with the ICE National Detention Standards or Performance Based National Detention Standards,” she said.
Pruneda said the Secure Communities program is used exclusively in criminal correction facilities and therefore would not be incorporated into the new detention center’s operations.
“The Karnes County Residential Center is not a criminal correctional facility but an administrative facility that would house low-risk, minimum security adult male immigrant detainees,” Pruneda said.
Libal said he feels many issues with the facilities have been ignored because of the lobbying influence private prison corporations have on the federal government. He said immigration officials should prioritize alternative assistance programs for immigrants over detention centers.
“They’re deporting thousands of people from our communities which creates a climate of fear that is not helpful for anyone,” Libal said. “I think at a time when we’re shutting down schools, perhaps spending billions of dollars to detain and deport people isn’t the right strategy.”