The Deplorable Conditions One Former Employee Witnessed At A Family Detention Center

In this Sept. 10, 2014 file photo, detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIC GAY
In this Sept. 10, 2014 file photo, detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIC GAY

A social worker has come forward to talk about the deplorable conditions she witnessed at a family detention center in Texas built in response to the large increase of Central American migrants that came across the southern U.S.-Mexico border last year.

At a Judiciary Democrats’ Forum on Family Detention set for Tuesday, Olivia Lopez, a former worker who worked at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes, Texas, will testify that she saw young children who regressed developmentally, detainees who were placed in isolation for speaking out, and superiors who wanted a “clean paper trail” because the facility was under constant audits, McClatchy DC first reported.

In an interview with McClatchy, Lopez said, “I walked in and thought, ‘oh my Lord, this is really a prison.’” She said that while there were state-of-the-art medical equipment and recreational activities for both mothers and children, the detainees were always locked up and that “they know they’re in a prison. They know they can’t leave.”

Lopez also indicated that if a migrant mother had an issue, Lopez was only able to write down what the detainee asked and give her information on how to access services. Because the facility was the subject of various audits, Lopez stated that she had to ensure a “clean” document. “If a document is clean, there aren’t any follow-ups,” she told the paper. “The audit stops at the document.”


One five-year-old child who was the victim of sexual assault during her journey regressed to the point of wearing a diaper. But when Lopez informed the psychologist, he dismissed the allegations and wrote a note stating that the young girl was fine.

Lopez’s account of what she witnessed closely aligns with an account provided to ThinkProgress in a previous report finding that mothers and children experienced threats of deportation and were subjected to isolation in a dark room as a punitive measure.

Pro-bono immigrant advocacy groups like Immigrant Justice Corps, which has been going down to the two Texas detention facilities in Karnes and Dilley since mid-June, have similar horror stories. Rachel B. Tiven, the executive director at Immigrant Justice Corps, told ThinkProgress that her immigration fellows report “massive inconsistencies” with the way that Immigration and Customs Enforcement handles women’s cases. “It’s extremely difficult to provide quality representation even for the small number of people that our fellows and volunteers are able to serve,” she said.

On Tuesday, Lopez will be joined with two formerly detained women at the Judiciary Democrats’ Forum. However, some immigration advocates say that Tuesday’s forum will likely put more emphasis on Lopez’s testimony than the migrant women’s.

“Unfortunately, there is more credence and more credibility of someone who speaks English, who holds a degree from the United States when the speak on this subject, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have experienced these conditions and reported them widely,” Jonathan Ryan, the executive director at RAICES, a nonprofit group that provides legal counsel to underserved immigrants, told ThinkProgress. “But I think it’s beneficial that there’s an expert that can speak from the perspective of someone who’s from this country, who knows what this country should be about to describe the extent to which these centers have broken the eternal promise that America has made to the world of being a beacon of democracy and freedom.”


Lopez’s testimony comes at a time when family detention centers have come under intense scrutiny by Democratic Congressional members, immigration lawyers, and activists. Just as the Obama administration has promised to ramp down family detention, a federal judge may make sure it ends for good.

Last week, Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the government can’t hold families in detention centers because it violates the 1997 court settlement known as the Flores Settlement that requires the federal government to hold migrant children in the least restrictive setting possible. Gee indicated that parents would be kept in custody if the person is a “significant flight risk” or if a child could be released to another family member in the United States. Her ruling, which could take effect within 90 days, could have major impact on whether the Karnes facility and two other major family detention centers located in Texas and Pennsylvania would remain open in its current form.

Ahead of Gee’s ruling, federal immigration officials began releasing mothers and children deemed eligible for asylum or another form of humanitarian relief from detention centers two weeks ago.

Gee’s ruling is something of a “total vindication” for immigrant advocates like Tiven and Ryan. “It’s reaffirming and a boost to morale that the federal government has validated what we’ve been contending since the beginning,” Ryan said. “But at the same time, it’s unfortunate that it’s after a year long legal battle that it took a federal judge to not find, but remind the government that this has been illegal for 20 years.”

But Tiven noted, “Women are being released, but aren’t getting the legal information they need upon their release” and that they’re “being released on ankle bracelets that many aren’t supposed to be on in the first place. They’re given no information about how they work or how they’re supposed to charge them. It’s an enormous amount of messiness. Those are reports as of today!”

Still, even as women have been lodging complaints for months about the detention facilities since they opened, some individuals who work for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency claim say they’ve been kept in the dark. When ICE Director Sarah Saldana was questioned over the use of dark rooms during her testimony before Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) in April, she said, “I’m not aware of that…. If that’s a fact, that disturbs me greatly.”

This piece formerly referred to Lopez as a whistleblower. She is more accurately described as a former employee.