Federal officials unveiled a new model of detention facility for low-risk immigration violators in Texas -- designed in every way not to resemble a jail, though it still is one.
The civil detention center in rural Karnes City, Texas is a 608-bed facility for male immigration detainees deemed not to pose a threat to themselves or others.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton calls it "a first in the entire history of immigration detention," allowing ICE detainees "greater unescorted movement, enhanced recreational opportunities, and contact visitation, while also maintaining a safe and secure atmosphere for detainees and staff."
The facility was launched as the United States is roiled by a major debate over immigration reform and after years of protests by human rights groups about the conditions in which illegal immigrants -- including families with children -- were being held.
From the outside, the series of low buildings surrounded by pastureland, cows grazing, and wildflowers looks more like a Walmart than a detention facility.
There's no obvious security in the form of chain link fences, razor wire ringing the perimeter, or a giant gate to pass through on the way into the building.
Instead, there's a grassy courtyard, with multiple green lawns for playing sports, a courtroom, videoconferencing areas, a library, an impressive array of medical and dental services open 24 hours a day, and dormitory-style rooms that sleep eight.
A series of skylights lets in natural light, detainees can wear jeans and sweatshirts and their own athletic shoes, and an array of payphones makes calling family and friends convenient during what immigration officials hope is an estimated 30-day stay in the facility.
Critics question why low-risk detainees are housed in a facility at all.
"We live in a world of limited resources, and even detention beds have to be prioritized," says Muzaffar Chisti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute at NYU's School of Law."
"In this matrix, it doesn't make sense to have asylum seekers and non-criminal immigrants with good family ties occupy those beds."
The Karnes County Civil Detention Center was designed and built by the GEO Group, Inc., which will staff the facility, through an intergovernmental service agreement with ICE and Karnes County.
GEO will get paid by ICE on a per diem basis for each immigration detainee they house, a setup that involved no outlay from the federal government for the design and construction of the center.
Nationwide, "it costs $122 a day to detain an immigration violator," according to Gary Mead, executive assistant director for ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations, who spoke at a press conference for media and non-governmental organizations.