A former social worker told members of Congress on Tuesday that she witnessed rampant abuse and neglect while working at a family detention center in Karnes City, Texas.
Olivia López was among a panel of witnesses that included former detained mothers and mental health experts who shared upsetting accounts of life and work inside the detention centers, the stress of being locked up with their children and the potential long-term psychological impacts.
López, 57, who received her doctorate in social work in 2006, told the lawmakers that staff at the Karnes County Residential Center used the medical observation rooms to isolate mothers and children. She said she was asked to lie to federal officials and withhold information from mothers about their rights.
“Not only are these conditions frightening, they are abusive,” López told the lawmakers. McClatchy first reported her observations Monday.
About 1,700 parents and children reside in three family detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and in Berks County, Pa.
While some Republicans defend the family detention centers as the best way to ensure those here illegally appear for their court dates, some Democrats in Congress have called for an end to the Obama administration policy.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus and House Judiciary Democrats invited Lopez to speak at a forum Tuesday afternoon to investigate the psychological, developmental and legal implications of current family detention policies.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., helped organized the Tuesday panel and led a delegation of Congress members who visited the two Texas facilities last month.
“One of the things that keeps me awake at night is the memory of the faces of the women in those jails,” Lofgren said during her opening statement. “I remember, as we were at Karnes, a hundred woman running up to me holding their little children in their arms crying.”
The Karnes County Residential Center is operated by the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company, Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group, and is overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
GEO officials have “strongly refuted” the allegations. Spokesman Pablo Paez said in an email to McClatchy that the facility provides “high-quality care in a safe, clean and family-friendly environment.” The company cites a Homeland Security inspector general report that found no evidence of sexual abuse or harassment at the Karnes center.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials describe the facilities as an “effective and humane alternative” to keep families together as they go through immigration proceedings.
López was joined at the hearing by two formerly detained mothers, along with Luis Zayas, the dean of the school of social work at the University of Texas at Austin, and Barbara Hines, a law professor who litigated a case leading to the closure of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, in 2009.
Sonia Hernandez, who was detained with her 3-year-old son at the Karnes facility, told lawmakers she will never be able to erase the memory of the center from her child’s mind.
“My 3-year-old son always says to me, ‘Mommy, I’m here,’” she said. “He won’t leave my sight. He asks me, ‘Are we going back to Room 108?’”
The congressional forum came days after a federal judge in California ruled that the Obama administration can no longer lock up migrant children with their mothers.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee found that the administration’s family detention policy violates an 18-year-old court settlement regarding the detention of migrant children. She has given the federal government until Aug. 3 to show why she shouldn’t implement several measures to enforce the order.
It’s unclear whether the Obama administration will appeal.
Many Democrats hope not, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., urged the administration to fight the decision. In a letter to Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson, he cited recent Executive Office for Immigration Review statistics that showed the majority of apprehended parents with children do not appear for future court dates.
“I understand that to fight this case may be an arduous undertaking in the face of well-funded and very motivated advocacy groups that decry any immigration enforcement,” Goodlatte wrote. “But your duty is to the American people to prevent and deter unlawful border entries.”