Feds pour money into Port Isabel’s ‘Hot Gulag’ immigration detention center

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As a logistical and political dilemma looms on the southern border, the Biden administration sinks hundreds of millions of dollars into a long-scarred Texas immigrant detention center — and, in turn, puts off a huge day payroll to a contractor with a history of abuse allegations against inmates and staff.

Port Isabel Detention Center spans more than 375 acres in the lower Rio Grande Valley, about an hour’s drive north of downtown Matamorros, Mexico. Visitors have described the coastal area as one of the most remote places in the Lone Star State, a place where birds from nearby Laguna Atascosa National Refuge are more frequent on the road than cars.

But instead of an isolated serenity, a dark history hangs over Port Isabel, as well as Akima, the controversial company responsible for taking over the day-to-day operations of the detention center.

In 1989, amid an influx of refugees from Central America, Catholic bishops in the state tagged it “the largest concentration camp on American soil since the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.”

This is where Robert Kahn, journalist and former immigration paralegal, called “the hot gulag» in his memoirs on the migratory wave of the 80s, The blood of otherstelling how the guards beat inmates, sexually harassed children and subjected inmates to regular strip searches and month-long solitary confinement. This is the site where—in 2009, 2010, 2018 and 2020— detainees have gone on hunger strikes to protest everything from lack of access to medical and legal services to physical violence and, more recently, a Rapidly expanding COVID-19 pole.

“Instead of isolating everyone and having social distancing, they were trapping people in their dorms,” ​​Norma Herrera, political strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, told The Daily Beast. “There were so many people that the men would tell me if they reached out while they were sleeping they would bump into someone.

Port Isabel Detention Center is also the compound where ICE detained a 17-year-old for four months in 2017, despite laws prohibiting minors from being housed with adults. It was there that the agency confined a 72-year-old grandfather with Alzheimer’s disease for nine months just a year later. And it was there that in 2018, at the height of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy”, ICE imprisoned parents separated from their children. Staff would have told mothers in Central America that they had to withdraw their asylum application if they wanted to see their children.

Now the Port Isabel detention center is where the Biden administration, watching a possible surge of migrants as the seasons change and Trump-era border restrictions are set to expire, prepares to sink huge sums. – much of the money going to a contractor who has a file almost as full of disturbing allegations as the establishment itself.

As the midterm elections approach, Biden’s record on immigration has drawn fire from both right and left. An influx of migrants — and the very public controversies surrounding migrant detention — could further undermine Democratic unity and hopes in an already difficult season.

ICE, which both owns Port Isabel and manages its contracts, has solicited bids on eight projects to upgrade the facility’s physical plant since March, far exceeding any other facility in the country. He did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast.

“We have noticed a flurry of solicitations at the federal procurement site indicating a potential renewal of detention, food and transportation services as well as the intention to pursue several maintenance projects and other physical updates to installation,” Liz Castillo noted. of the non-profit Detention Watch Network.

Jose Cabezas/AFP via Getty Images

The improvements appear to be aligned with a plan approved by the Department of Homeland Security in early 2019 replace or rehabilitate defective structures on site, including the “inadequately sized” secure living space. At the time, department documents noted, Port Isabel was pressing its maximum capacity of 1,200 inmates daily.

But according to retained data per Syracuse University, the average daily population has since fallen to less than half. Supporters fear the federal government’s actions could be a prelude to increased incarceration, as Title 42 – a Trump-era policy that allowed expedited removal of asylum seekers on pandemic-related grounds – should expire towards the end of the month.

“It looks like they’re gearing up and ramping up to house people there,” Herrera of the ACLU Texas said.

The largest contract to date has gone to Akima Corporation: a one-year, $191.9 million deal to provide the facility with food, guards and transportation.

Like the former Port Isabel operator – and like lots of border security and immigrant detention contractors – Akima is an Alaskan Native corporation, part of a constellation of holding companies the federal government created in 1971 to compensate Native communities for land lost in the chaotic process of State. The company did not respond to repeated calls from The Daily Beast.

But judging by the history of complaints against Akima, his story is full of complaints.

There are eight pending federal lawsuits against the company, including worker claims of overtime theft, wrongful termination, workplace retaliation, and discrimination based on age and medicine. Last March, the Department of Labor slapped one of the company’s affiliates with $21,000 in fines after an accident killed an employee at one of its Colorado-managed sites.

The company’s employment practices came under intense scrutiny in 2017, when it fired a marketing analyst pictured giving the middle finger to then-president Donald Trump. Analyst Juli Briskman lost a wrongful termination suit but won a severance claim.

The stories of those interned in Akima-run facilities are less politically exciting, but much more visceral.

Jose Cabezas/AFP via Getty Images

In late 2020, Alejandro Mugaburu, detained at a resort in Akima, Florida, filed a lawsuit accusing the company of denying him medication for his epilepsy and cardiovascular disease. The lawsuit further alleges that the facility placed him in a bed on the second floor, in violation of policy guidelines, culminating in a seizure that sent him down a flight of 14 steps and landed him in A wheelchair.

In court, Akima argued that as a private entrepreneur, he is immune from such a lawsuit. He also argues that Mugaburu has failed to prove that he has exhausted “administrative remedies” such as filing a formal complaint with ICE.

Mugaburu’s lawyer, Eduardo Ayala, hesitated to answer what he saw as “political” questions about ICE’s contracting practices. But he nonetheless expressed dismay at the agency’s continued business with Akima.

“I can tell you that my opinion of Akima is not good,” the lawyer said. “And it’s certainly not an entity that I would be comfortable handing over to immigrants.”

This is far from the only story of abuse reported in Akima’s Sunshine State operations. In October last year, a coalition of activist groups filed a complaint civil rights complaint on behalf of a group of Caribbean and African migrants who alleged a lack of COVID-19 protocols, inadequate medical care and sexual touching by guards.

“One officer died of COVID-19 and another officer is in critical condition on a ventilator,” the complaint states, citing testimony submitted via an anonymous hotline. “I am currently in a group where many people are infected with COVID-19 and are rapidly spreading it to other people. We are unable to social distance, we have masks but they have not been cleaned and we have had them for weeks. There is also no proper sanitation.

Muslim prisoners at two separated Akima ICE facilities accused staff of serving them expired meals, giving them food from the garbage or encouraging them to eat pork during the holy month of Ramadan.

One such facility, in western New York, faced a lawsuit in 2020 for allegedly exploiting inmate labor under conditions that one plaintiff described as “on the edge of slavery.” The complaint described how inmates performed kitchen and janitorial work at the center but, instead of wages, only received $1 in daily credits for the commissioner – where inmates told news outlets that food from the vending machine regularly cost over $5 and deodorant cost $10. In his response, Akima argued that the accusers had never been legally his employees and therefore were not entitled to any minimum wage.

The same facility has also been criticized for its COVID-19 Policiesalso for place a mental patient detained in prolonged solitary confinement.

Proponents have argued that detention centers such as Port Isabel and others under Akima’s direction are not only historically inhumane, they are also a raw deal for taxpayers.

The federal government could save huge sums of money, they say, by placing asylum seekers who pass background checks with financially supporting family members in the United States and investing in the place in the sadly overcrowded arbitration system, in order to process claims more efficiently.

“It really calls into question the fact that the federal government says it has limited resources or limited ability to approach immigration from a more humanitarian perspective, when we see a $190 million contract for just one institution,” said Karla Marisol Vargas, senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “It’s really disgusting how much money is going into it, to be honest.”

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