Staff photo— Duane A. Laverty, file

A nonprofit organization that provides legal counsel for asylum seekers says Waco’s Jack Harwell Detention Center should not be used to house immigration detainees prior to deportation.

Officials from American Gateways, formerly the Political Asylum Project of Austin, toured the Harwell facility in April.

They are urging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to discontinue using it because detainees with no criminal records were being held in a jail, said Stephanie Taylor, an American Gateways attorney.

“It is clear that this is a penal institution,” Taylor said. “It houses individuals in criminal custody, and it’s very different from the other ICE facilities that our organization does work at.”

Being in the country illegally is not a criminal offense, Taylor said. People caught crossing the border without proper documentation are committing a misdemeanor on their first offense. If a detainee has been deported previously, and is caught again entering the country, it is a felony.

The Harwell Detention Center on Highway 6, operated by LaSalle Corrections, held 274 immigration detainees Monday.

Loss of the $55.50 per detainee per day that ICE pays to house them would put a dent in operating revenue, officials say.

“Every little bit is important to us. . . . We definitely want to continue using ICE,” said Tim Kurpiewski, LaSalle’s director of finance. “It would definitely impact our businesses.”

LaSalle pays McLennan County about $4 million per year to cover the bond issue used to build the jail. LaSalle earns that by housing inmates from different governmental institutions, McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said.

The facility needs to hold about 600 inmates in order to cover expenses.

The McLennan County Jail sends its overflow inmates to the Harwell facility for $45.50 per day per inmate. Johnson County and the U.S. Marshals Service also send inmates to Harwell.

Taylor said Gateways simply is telling ICE to follow the guidelines its director, John Morton, set in 2009.

“The system will no longer rely primarily on excess capacity in penal institutions. . . . ICE will design facilities located and operated for immigration detention purposes,” the ICE website says. “These same reforms will bring improved medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence and ICE oversight.”

ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said the organization is open to discussing any concerns with partnering agencies, but the Harwell facility has passed all its inspections.

A statement released by ICE said “independent detention inspections are conducted by private contractors with extensive corrections experience to ensure quality assurance over the review process, consistency in the application of detention standards and verification of corrective actions, if any.”

Taylor said the tour of Harwell revealed no outdoor recreation space, no contact visitation room and outdated law materials. “When you have materials that are that outdated, it really affects the ability of an individual to represent themselves before an immigration court,” she said.

Other concerns, Taylor said, were the lack of information given detainees about how long they would be held, their lack of access to an asylum officer and a confusing phone system.

“If an individual is afraid to return to their home country because they are going to face persecution, they have a right to see an asylum officer,” Taylor said. “Only one out of the 30 or so individuals we spoke to even knew this was a possibility.”

Felton said he doesn’t think ICE will remove any of its detainees from Harwell because it is a well-run and well-maintained facility.

“I would think it would be one of the last places they want to pull out of,” he said.

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