The British security firm Serco has moved a step closer to entering the controversial but lucrative immigration detention market in the US, as the company successfully lobbied public officials in a small Texas county near the Mexico border to propose that the federal government open a family detention centre in the jurisdiction.
The billion-dollar company, implicated in numerous immigration detention centre scandals in the UK and Australia, has been lobbying the US government for more than a year in an effort to win detention contracts, sparking sustained criticism f-rom immigrant rights groups.
The firm is now proposing that a shuttered nursing home in Jim Wells County, Texas, be reopened as a family detention centre, which could hold up to 600 detainees and would become the third privately managed centre in the United States.
The Obama administration’s use of family detention centres that hold children and mothers has become one of the most contested elements of America’s border protection program.
Serco representatives first approached officials in the county last month, as the company ramped up its lobbying efforts, following an open pitching invitation announced by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) in April. On Monday, following a closed-door session between Serco lobbyists and the county’s five commissioners, the local government body voted to partner with Serco and pitch the proposal to Ice.
The company has employed a number of experienced lobbyists in America, including a former senior Ice staff member, Kate Mills, and has already listed a job opening for a communications and logistics staff member close to the proposed centre “in the event of a contract award”.
Judge Pedro Trevino Jr, the presiding member of the Jim Wells commissioners court, told the Guardian that Serco indicated up to 200 local jobs could be cre-ated at the centre. The county, with just over 40,000 residents, has had a spike in unemployment following the decline of the oil and gas industry in the region with the poverty rate climbing to 20%, according to census data.
“People are most interested in the jobs it would cre-ate,” said Trevino, of the county’s reaction to the proposed deal, adding that county attorneys were continuing to research the proposal, wary of the controversy it could bring.
“We know family detention centres are highly controversial and we want to put all our ducks in a row and gather facts before we make our final decision.”
Although Ice opened an “information” pitching round designed for “market research” purposes, it has not yet confirmed if it will move on to receive formal proposals f-rom potential family detention contractors.
“There are several formalities that have to transpire with the [request for proposals] before we can begin to discuss,” an Ice public affairs officer told the Guardian.
About 38,000 people were apprehended crossing the US-Mexico border in April alone, including more than 10,000 unaccompanied children and “family units”,according to US Customs and Border Patrol. This is the highest number since a surge in arrivals in June 2014, and will add pressure to the already strained detention network.
Reports have also indicated that the Obama administration is planning raids that could lead to the detention and deportation of more Central American mothers and children who entered the country illegally.
Serco has operated the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in the UK since 2007 and endured a string of abuse allegations, including that members of staff sexually assaulted female detainees. In Australia, whe-re Serco operates all of the country’s mainland immigration detention facilities under a multibillion-dollar contract, the company has suffered sustained criticism after riots have broken out in centres on Christmas Island, dozens of detainees have self-harmed and others have made sexual assault allegations against staff.
“Their actual track record is very different to what they say to people here in the US,” said Mohammad Abdollahi, director of advocacy for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services not-for-profit group in Texas. “There is no ‘right’ way to detain families, but they have shown, around the world, everything that is wrong with how you do it.”
“Serco has international experience of managing immigration facilities. We are committed to looking after all those in our care with trust and respect,” said a US spokesman for the company in an emailed statement that confirmed Serco’s presence in Jim Wells County.
The centre would be the corporation’s first in the United States, completing a triangle of family detention centers in south Texas, whe-re Geo Group operates the 679-bed Karnes County Residential Center, and Corrections Corporation of America runs the 2,400-bed Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. The only family facility outside of the state is a 96-bed facility in Pennsylvania that is operated by Berks County under an agreement with Ice.
Most of the women and children held at the three facilities are seeking refugee status and asylum amid a humanitarian crisis in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, which operated a pilot “al-ternative to detention” program last year, says it found that housing the families in a less restrictive setting was a more cost-effective way to ensure they attended their immigration court hearings.
“We saw that people seeking asylum have a huge stake in finishing the process that could give them a chance to potentially rebuild their life and live here in safety,” said Brittney Nystrom, LIRS director for advocacy. “We are creating additional trauma and pouring money down the drain.”