Austinities use Father's Day to protest immigrant detention

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Eschewing backyard cook-offs, cheesy cards and other signs of the holiday weekend, some members of the Austin community chose to spend this past Father’s Day weekend protesting living conditions of fathers in U.S. immigrant detention centers.  

Around thirty Austinites traveled to east Texas on Saturday to join other activists calling for the closure of the Polk County Adult Detention Center in Livingston, Texas. The vigil was part of a national protest against immigrant detention centers across the country organized by the Detention Watch Network, a coalition of local organizations centered on issues of deportation and immigration.

Operated by the for-profit contractor Community Education Centers, the center holds up to 1,054 beds divided between immigrants awaiting deportation and other beds contracted by the U.S. Marshals Service. Cohort members claimed the center was guilty of human rights violations.

“There are eight men to a cell in Polk,” said Rocio Villalobos, an organizer for the protest and program coordinator in the Multicultural Engagement Center. “There is a lack of meaningful programming for these men, poor access to medical care and a recurring use of solitary confinement.” 

Members of Detention Watch were allowed to visit the center last July to speak with detainees and tour the facility. Based on the interviews collected, Detention Watch released a report last fall alleging the facility guilty of “willful neglect” for detainees.

Villalobos said language barriers meant many detainees signed forms they did not understand, leading to coercive conditions during incarceration.

“A man, who only spoke Spanish, told us he signed papers in English that essentially segregated him into solitary confinement,” Villalobos said. “He was only told that the documents would benefit him but didn’t know what he was signing.”

Greg Palmore, spokesperson for the Houston office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said authorities had been informed of the protest in advance but did not agree with the findings of Detention Watch’s report. 

“Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reviewed the Detention Watch Network report and found it built primarily on anonymous, unsubstantiated allegations,” Palmore said in a statement. “Many secondhand sources and anecdotes in the report pre-date the agency’s initiation of comprehensive detention reform.”

Follow Andrew Messamore on Twitter @AndrewMessamore