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Feds Pouring Cash into Port Isabel ‘Hot Gulag’ Immigrant Detention Center

As a logistical and political dilemma looms at the southern border, the Biden administration is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a facility that holds long-suffering Texas immigrants — and in turn, handing over a hefty payday to a contractor with a history of alleged abuse against detainees and employees.

The 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 in the Lone Star State — where birds from neighboring Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge are more frequent on the roads than on the road. bowl.

But instead of seclusion, a dark history looms over Port Isabel — as does Akima, the controversial company set up to take care of the day-to-day operations of the detention center.

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

That’s where Robert Kahn, a journalist and former immigration legal assistant, calls “the wormhole” in his memoirs about the wave of ’80s immigration, Someone else’s blood, recounts how guards beat detainees, sexually harassed children, and subjected inmates to frequent strip searches and months-long periods of solitary confinement. It is a location where — in 2009, 2010, 2018 and 2020 — inmates went on hunger strikes to protest everything from lack of access to medical and legal services to physical abuse and near-misses. This is essentially a rapidly expanding COVID-19 cluster.

Norma Herrera, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, recalled to The Daily Beast: “Instead of isolating people and alienating society, they would trap people in their dormitories. if they reach out their hand while sleeping, they will bump into someone. “

The Port Isabel Detention Center is also the same complex where ICE held a 17-year-old man for four months in 2017, despite a law that forbids minors from sharing a room with adults. That’s where the agency detained a 72-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease for nine months just a year later. And that’s where, in 2018 — at the height of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” — ICE jailed parents separated from their children. Officers are said to have told Central American mothers they should withdraw their asylum applications if they wanted to see their children.

Now, the Port Isabel Detention Center is where the Biden administration, which is looking into a potential increase in migrants as the seasons change and Trump-era border restrictions are expected to lapse, is preparing. receive huge sums of money — with most of the money going to a single contractor. has a record almost as rife with unsettling allegations as the establishment itself.

As the midterm elections loom, Biden’s immigration record has drawn attention from the right and the left. An influx of migrants – and the very public controversies surrounding migrant detention – could further undermine Democrats’ unity and hope during an already difficult season.

ICE, which both owns Port Isabel and manages its contracts, has tendered eight projects to enhance the company’s physical factory since March, far exceeding any other facility in the country. It did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast.

“We have seen a flurry of calls on the federal procurement website toward a potential extension of detention, food and transportation services and intent to continue with certain maintenance projects. and other physical updates to the facility,” noted Liz Castillo of the nonprofit Detention Tracking Network.

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Jose Cabezas / AFP via Getty Images

These improvements appear to be in line with a plan the Department of Homeland Security signed off on in early 2019 to replace or rehabilitate failed structures in situ, including “safe-home spaces the size of not suitable”. At the time, department records noted, every day, Port Isabel had to resist a maximum capacity of 1,200 detainees.

But according to data maintained by Syracuse University, the average daily population has fallen to less than half. Supporters worry that the federal government’s actions are a prelude to increased detention for Title 42 — a Trump-era policy that allows for the rapid removal of asylum seekers on related to the pandemic — will expire near the end of the month.

“It looks like they’re preparing and rushing to arrange housing there,” said Herrera of the ACLU Texas.

The biggest deal to date has gone to the Akima company: a year-long, $191.9 million deal to provide food, protection, and transportation to the facility.

Like the former operator of Port Isabel — and like many border security and immigrant detention contractors — Akima is an Alaska Native Company, part of a group of government-affiliated holdings. The state was established in 1971 to compensate indigenous communities for lands lost to bad statehood. The company has not responded to repeated outreach from The Daily Beast.

But judging by the history of complaints against Akima, its history is filled with complaints.

There are eight pending federal lawsuits against the company, including claims from workers about overtime theft, wrongful termination of employment, occupational retaliation, discrimination in age and health. Last March, the Labor Department slapped one of the company’s affiliates with $21,000 in fines after an accident killed an employee at one of the Colorado-administered locations..

The company’s hiring practices came under scrutiny in 2017, when the company fired a marketing analyst who had photographed giving a finger to then-President Donald Trump’s motorcade. Analyst, Juli Briskman, lost the legal termination suit but won a severance request.

The stories of people being interned at institutions run by Akima are less politically poignant, but much more substantive.

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Jose Cabezas / AFP via Getty Images

In late 2020, Alejandro Mugaburu, a detainee at an Akima complex in Florida, filed a lawsuit alleging that the company refused to give him medication for epilepsy and heart disease. The lawsuit further asserts that the establishment placed him on a second bunk bed, in violation of policy guidelines — culminating in a seizure that sent him falling down a flight of 14 flights of stairs and landing. he is in a wheelchair.

In court, Akima asserted that, as a private contractor, it is not subject to such lawsuits. It also asserts that Mugaburu failed to demonstrate that he had exhausted such “administrative remedies” when he filed a formal complaint with ICE.

Mugaburu’s attorney, Eduardo Ayala, was hesitant to answer what he called “political” questions about ICE’s contracting practices. But anyway, he lost interest in continuing the company’s business with Akima.

“I can tell you my opinion of Akima is not good,” said the lawyer, “And it is certainly not an entity where I can comfortably take care of immigrants.

This is not the only story of abuse reported at Akima’s Sunshine State operations. In October last year, a coalition of activist groups filed a formal citizenship complaint on behalf of a group of West Indian and African migrants alleging a lack of COVID-19 protocol, medical care. inadequate health care and sexually groped by guards.

“One officer has died of COVID-19 and another is in critical condition on a ventilator,” the complaint cites testimonies sent via an anonymous hotline. “I am currently in a shell where a lot of people are infected with COVID-19 and spread it rapidly to others. We can’t social distance, we have masks but they haven’t been wiped and we’ve been wearing them for weeks. There is also no proper sanitation system.”

Muslims detained at two separate ICE Akima facilities have accused staff of serving them expired meals, giving them junk food or encouraging them to eat pork during the holy month of Ramadan.

One of those facilities, in western New York, was sued in 2020 for allegedly exploiting the labor of people detained in conditions one plaintiff described as “bordering the regime slave.” The complaint describes how the detainees performed kitchen and janitorial work at the center but instead of a salary received only $1 in daily credit to the commission — where the detainees say to news outlets that vending machine food regularly costs more than $5 and deodorant costs $10. In his response, Akima insisted the whistleblowers were never legitimate employees. company law, and are therefore not entitled to any minimum wages.

The same facility has also been criticized for its COVID-19 policies, as well as for placing mentally ill people in prolonged solitary confinement.

Proponents argue that detention facilities such as Port Isabel and others under Akima’s administration are not only historically inhumane but they are a rough deal for taxpayers.

According to them, the federal government could save huge sums of money by placing asylum seekers who pass background checks with family members who assist financially in the US and invest in the system instead. notoriously congested adjudication system, to handle claims more efficiently.

Karla Marisol Vargas, senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Honestly, it’s disgusting to see how much money is being poured into this.”

https://www.thedailybeast.com/feds-dump-cash-into-port-isabel-hot-gulag-immigrant-detention-center?source=articles&via=rss Feds Pouring Cash into Port Isabel ‘Hot Gulag’ Immigrant Detention Center

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