Federal authorities want to build a new South Texas immigration lockup for families amid an unprecedented surge in the number of youngsters pouring across the U.S. border, a federal official said Thursday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is proposing a residential center in the town of Dilley, about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio, agency spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda said.
"Structures on the site may be used temporarily to house up to 680 residents while the new facilities are built," she said.
Pruneda said ICE isn't discussing further details, including how many adults and children the 50-acre facility would house, how much it would cost or when it might be ready.
ICE is working to "finalize contracts with construction and service providers" for the South Texas facility, she said.
The spike in unaccompanied children and families crossing the border has strained federal authorities' capacity to house those arrested on immigration charges.
Many of the immigrants say they are fleeing drug and gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Some are seeking asylum. Others are held in detention while awaiting deportation or placement with relatives already in the U.S.
Last month, federal authorities converted an all-male facility in Karnes City, southeast of San Antonio, to accept 532 mothers and their children. Another immigration center for families in Pennsylvania and a temporary site in New Mexico have a combined capacity of about 800.
"ICE's family residential centers are an effective option to maintain family units as they await the outcome of immigration hearings or return to their home countries," Pruneda said in a statement. "ICE ensures that family detention facilities operate in an open environment that includes play rooms, social workers, medical care, and classrooms with state-certified teachers and bilingual teachers."
The plan is being decried by advocacy groups, who point to the fraught history of a past Texas family immigration lockup, the T. Don Hutto detention center, northeast of Austin. The ACLU and University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic sued in 2007 over incarcerating families there, alleging inhumane conditions.
Authorities in 2009 removed all families and sent them to the Pennsylvania facility, and Hutto now only houses women.
"The lesson from Hutto is that detention is inappropriate for kids and their families and I think that viewpoint has already been proven," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an organization that opposes the use of for-profit prisons and immigration detention centers.
Libal also expressed concern about locating the new immigration center in isolated Dilley, on Interstate 35 about 85 miles north of the border city of Laredo.
"When you put detention centers in remote areas, far away from legal services or the eyes of community members or proper oversight, it makes it more likely that bad things are going to happen," Libal said.