US Is Locking Immigrants in Toxic Detention Centers

From Washington to Texas, climate refugees detained in contaminated jails are victims of environmental injustice

graphic depicting a prison

In April, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, again made headlines after more than 100 immigrant detainees launched a hunger strike to protest the conditions inside the for-profit immigration jail.

The demands reflected many of the concerns originally raised by detainees when they went on strike in 2014: abuse from guards, maggoty food, inadequate access to medical care and exorbitant commissary prices, to name a few. The detainees were also protesting the fact that they were running the prison’s basic services for wages of just $1 a day, some reportedly receiving only a bag of chips in exchange for waxing the prison’s floors.

Conditions at the immigration jail have drawn in local climate activists and other allies, who, in 2015, blockaded three exits where buses and vans usually carry out detainees for deportation. The activists’ interest in the jail is not only grounded in concerns about basic human rights — it’s also about environmental justice.

The 1,500-bed immigration jail, operated by the private prison giant GEO Group, sits adjacent to a federal Superfund cleanup site where a coal gasification plant leeched toxic sludge into the soil for over three decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took over the site in the early 1990s as part of its Superfund cleanup of the tar pits, which included monitoring groundwater wells, and stockpiling and capping contaminated soils, according to the News Tribune, Tacoma’s main newspaper. Today, the site is still dotted with drainage ditches, retention ponds and a capped waste pile.

photo of Tacoma Immigrant Detention Center Photo by Seattle GlobalistTacoma’s Northwest Detention Center is adjacent to a federal Superfund cleanup site where a coal gasification plant leeched toxic sludge into the soil for more than three decades. The detention center is just one of several immigrant jails located in contaminated areas in the US.

The site is just one of several distinct Superfund cleanup sites in the industrial district known as the “Tideflats,” encompassing the city’s port and multiple railroad facilities. Another cleanup site in the Tideflats is located around the former ASARCO copper smelter, which, according to the News Tribune, emitted lead and arsenic from its nearly 600-foot-tall smokestack for decades, contaminating the area’s water, sediments, and upland areas in the process.

The area is so polluted that the city designated it unfit for residents — except, that is, for Northwest’s immigrant detainees. Eager to approve the jail, a Tacoma councilman, aided by a city attorney, found a useful loophole to keep it from being built on the city’s “prime port property,” by determining that it didn’t meet the state’s definition of an “essential public facility.” This allowed developers to get around local zoning laws, according to the News Tribune.

On top of that, the Tideflats district is vulnerable to an array of disasters, both natural and human-caused, with everything from benzene-filled underground storage tanks to oil-filled “bomb train” cars at risk of exploding. Even the ground beneath the jail is made of “fill-material that is likely to liquefy in the event of an earthquake,” according to the Seattle Globalist. The sediment there also shows evidence that “volcanic lahars have flowed through the area during past eruptions of Mount Rainier.” To make matters even worse, in the event of a tsunami, the prison would fill with as much as two meters of water in less than eight minutes, according to the Globalist.

Wendy Pantoja Castillo, a naturalized US citizen from Mexico, has been campaigning on behalf of detainees at the Northwest Detention Center, including publicly protesting the jail’s conditions and visiting detainees there for the past several years. She described detainees’ exposure to extremely polluted air and soil in the area, and said she has worked to organize “toxic tours” of the Tideflats district with other local environmental activists.

“Many of the detainees are reporting they have headaches at night, especially. At night, the air is a little heavier, and it’s more dirty,” Pantoja Castillo said. “It smells really bad, and this is in all the city, but it’s really close to the detention center, and at night people say ... they are feeling dizzy.”

No environmental study on air quality and impacts has been conducted in the area, which is something Castillo is pushing to change. She and other organizers are working to pressure the city and state Department of Ecology for air monitoring in the district.

Moreover, the water in the area is known to have been contaminated with lead and arsenic from the ASARCO copper smelter, which Pantoja Castillo suspects could be affecting the detainees there. “Many of [the detainees] are reporting that the water is different ... so we don’t know about the water quality,” Pantoja Castillo says.

The jail underwent both a federal and state-level environmental assessment in 2001, but according to the News Tribune, the review process for the jail was unusual in many aspects, including that the federal and state reviews were not coordinated, that the state determination only assessed one site alternative in play and that the final federal review did not include a required “preferred site alternative” at all. An earlier draft of the federal Environmental Impact Statement identified an alternative site as preferential due to the risks posed by the hazardous waste stored at the original site and its location along the tar pits Superfund cleanup. Subsequent drafts, however, identified the original site as suitable.

Years later, Pantoja Castillo says the city is still pushing its own agenda over the well-being of the detainees. “The city is doing, to be honest, not really anything in this situation because they want to be pushing LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas],” she said.

Puget Sound Energy (PSE) has proposed a massive, 18-story, 8-million-gallon LNG plant at the Port of Tacoma that would liquefy fracked gas and distribute the product on ships and on tanker trucks. The plant has faced opposition from environmental activists concerned that an accident could be catastrophic to the neighborhoods within three miles of the site — and the even-closer prisoners at the Northwest Detention Center who would have to “shelter in place” if there is an accident. Most prisoners in the US are almost never actually evacuated during disasters.

PSE’s own figures show the plant would release 39.6 tons of air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulates, as well as 20,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. These human and environmental risks are why six protesters chained themselves to construction equipment in May and currently face misdemeanor charges.

Opposition has also come from the Puyallup Tribe, who are native to the banks of Commencement Bay and hold treaty rights within the Tideflats area. The city has solicited the tribe’s input as it works to develop a subarea plan to review zoning and land-use rules in the area. Additionally, the city is currently working toward interim regulations on industrial uses in the Tideflats as it conducts its multi-year subarea review.

From Tacoma to Texas

Tacoma’s toxic Northwest Detention Center is not the only immigrant jail to be located in a contaminated area in the US. In 2014, the detainees’ hunger strike at the Tacoma jail inspired copycat strikes at for-profit immigrant jails in Texas, where, despite toxic conditions, immigrant detention centers have been greenlit without consideration to environmental impacts on detainees.

Truthout previously reported on a hunger strike at the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas, that was directly inspired by the strike at the Tacoma jail in 2014. The city is also the site of the first new immigrant jail to be approved as part of the Trump administration’s plans to drastically expand the US immigrant detention and deportation apparatus. The new 1,000-bed Montgomery ICE Processing Center is under construction immediately adjacent to the Joe Corley jail, and has been contracted directly between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and GEO Group, despite local opposition.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prepared a project-level environmental assessment for the new jail in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires appropriate federal agencies to weigh the environmental impacts of their actions. Similarly, a 1994 executive order requires all federal agencies to consider the impacts of their actions on low-income communities and communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution, and to create a strategy to implement environmental justice.

Under these 1994 environmental justice parameters, ICE’s environmental assessment of the new immigrant jail in Conroe looked at benefits to the local economy in the area, noting increases in employment. However, it failed to weigh any environmental impacts on future detainees who will be held there.

In a special investigation, Truthout and Earth Island Journal found that the failure to apply environmental justice guidelines to prisoners and detainees is a systemic problem in the NEPA process as it applies to prisons, jails, and detention centers across the nation, even though the majority of those incarcerated are from low-income communities and are people of color.

Immigrant-rights advocates said they are concerned that the detainees at the new jail could be impacted by accidents related to industrial hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations in the area, as well as its related infrastructure, highlighting a recent pipeline spill.

The EPA and the Texas Railroad Commission are supervising the cleanup of several hundred barrels of oil spilled in Conroe in June. While a county judge told The Courier that there didn’t appear to be any threat to the local water supply, residents in the area have complained of a smell and residue in the water. Moreover, immigrant-rights advocates have said that detainees at Joe Corley have complained that the water tastes off.

Additionally, data provided by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality shows the three-year average ozone reading for Conroe is higher than at two ozone monitors near the Houston Ship Channel — an area with some of the worst air quality in the nation. Air quality issues have also been a concern at other immigrant jails in the region, including those specifically designed to incarcerate women and children.

The largest immigrant jail in the nation is located in Dilley, Texas, and can hold up to 2,400 mothers and children. The “South Texas Family Residential Center” was built in 2014 at Sendero Ranch, a former “man camp” for oil and gas workers, about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio. Frio County, where Dilley is located, has been described as “the waste epicenter of the 30-county Eagle Ford Shale,” where 20 saltwater disposal wells pump fracking wastewater back into the Earth.

Like the jail in Conroe, the state’s two immigrant-family jails in Dilley and Karnes City, have been sites of nightmarish human rights abuses, including allegations of sexual assault, forced family separation, malnourishment and depression among children, denial of due process for asylum-seekers, coercion to sign voluntary deportation forms and inadequate medical treatment.

In previous years, women and children in immigrant-family jails were held for much longer durations than they are currently, in some cases for more than a year. In July 2016 a federal court stepped in, forcing the government to release families within 20 days of their apprehension — a mandate now under threat by Trump’s January 25 “expedited removal” executive orders.

In 2015, after mothers at the Karnes County Civil Detention Center went on hunger strike to protest their conditions, immigrant rights advocates and attorneys told me that ICE officials had shut down the commissary (a jail store) to force mothers to drink the jail’s tap water, which many complained has been chlorinated due to heavy industrial fracking operations in Karnes County. The mothers, who are paid $3 a day to work at the jail, typically opt to buy clean water for $2.50 at the commissary.

If Frio County is the waste epicenter of the Eagle Ford Shale, Karnes County may be the drilling epicenter of the Eagle Ford, which is still one of the most active shale plays in the country. Karnes City, where the immigrant jail is located, has experienced several well blowouts prompting evacuations of nearby residential neighborhoods.

Furthermore, an April 2017 study conducted by Earthworks and researchers from Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute found that 75 percent of the Karnes County residents they interviewed reported health issues, including migraines and neurological problems, such as memory loss, confusion, or lack of focus. Fifty percent reported respiratory problems, such as asthma, shortness of breath, pulmonary fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

For very young children — including infants — incarcerated in immigrant-family jails, the risk is even more pronounced, as their still-developing lungs are more vulnerable to the chemicals and particulates released during the fracking process. While air-quality impacts on children at the Karnes jail haven’t been studied, one local nurse told Earthworks researchers that she has noticed a drastic increase in respiratory problems among schoolchildren in the county.

Immigrant Detention and NEPA

An ICE spokesperson confirmed that the agency didn’t have a project-level environmental assessment for the Karnes family-jail, most likely because it has been tied to DHS’s programmatic environmental assessment for the Obama administration’s family detention program. The programmatic assessment is meant to be a more comprehensive evaluation of environmental impacts of the department’s “increased activities” to detain, process, and transport unaccompanied children and families. DHS released a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) in 2014 covering not only the influx of refugee families and unaccompanied children who came across the border during the summer of that year, but also all future such influxes.

The FONSI determined that a more robust Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for DHS’s family detention program wasn’t needed. The family jail at Dilley, however, was determined to have impacts that exceeded those that were assessed under DHS’s programmatic assessment, and underwent a project-level, supplemental assessment of its own. DHS again found the jail would have no significant environmental impacts to the surrounding area. However, the University of Texas’s (UT) Immigration and Environmental Law clinics charged that this assessment was inadequate, and pressured officials to conduct a more thorough one.

In 2014, the clinics sent a letter to officials at the DHS and EPA arguing that the Dilley jail impacted the environment in ways DHS has failed to consider when it hastily approved the jail without public comment in 2014. The clinics requested that DHS prepare a detailed EIS since its supplemental assessment failed to consider issues such as the drawdown and potential contamination of local aquifers; strain on water utilities in Dilley; the risk of permanent hearing loss for detainees due to heavy industrial operations in the area, including fracking; and the risk of respiratory and other illness on detainees. The assessment also failed to question the concept of family detention or examine humane alternatives.

“The impetus for that letter, was a concern that the government — in that case, the Homeland Security Department — was fast-tracking a facility that deserved a full environmental impact analysis, and that the full analysis had been possibly kind of circumvented or sped up in order to … reach a particular deadline,” says Kelly Haragan, who directs UT’s Environmental Law Clinic. “So, we were worried that the plans actually had not been studied and that the full environmental impact wasn’t really evaluated or known.”

But DHS declined to prepare a full EIS for the project, and broke ground on construction that same year. But while immigrant jails often undergo project-level assessments resulting in FONSIs, a larger, programmatic assessment of the US immigrant detention system as a whole is missing.

In fact, while the Obama administration released a programmatic assessment for its activities regarding detaining and processing unaccompanied children and families in 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity pointed out in a lawsuit that there hasn’t been a programmatic environmental assessment of DHS’s larger immigration enforcement program since 2001. That assessment was conducted under its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Furthermore, it’s unclear whether NEPA’s categorical exclusions apply to certain immigrant jails. A spokesperson from ICE headquarters did not respond to Truthout and Earth Island Journal’s request for a clarification regarding a programmatic assessment for the detention program or to questions regarding whether categorical exclusions apply to certain detention centers.

Now, as the Trump administration seeks to expand immigrant detention, it seems likely that the vast majority of newly constructed immigrant jails will be approved with a simple FONSI — and without consideration of how site-specific environmental conditions could impact future detainees.

Toxic Jails for Climate Refugees

When it comes to detention and environmental injustice, one great irony is that many of the immigrants the US government locks up in for-profit immigration jails are environmental refugees. This is especially true for immigrants fleeing the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These refugees have often been pushed to leave their homes by factors that are either directly and indirectly prompted by ongoing climate disruption.

At the peak of the influx of families and unaccompanied children arriving at the US’s southern border, 68,541 unaccompanied minors and 68,445 families were apprehended at the border during the 2014 fiscal year. That year, Central Americans apprehended at the border outnumbered Mexicans for the first time. They did so again in fiscal year 2016, according to Customs and Border Protection.

Many of these families were fleeing skyrocketing homicide rates and rampant gang violence, but these are not the only forces pushing Northern Triangle refugees to risk the perilous journey to the US. In tandem with spiking rates of violence, these countries have also suffered some of the worst droughts in decades, causing farmers to lose their livelihoods and pushing up food prices for everyone else. In fact, in 2015 a World Food Programme study found that drought-induced food insecurity was a main driver of migration out of the Northern Triangle. Dry conditions have continued to batter the region in recent years.

Studies have shown that warming-enhanced drought can contribute to and exacerbate social strife and civil violence, such as in Syria, which was also battered by a drought at the onset of the civil war. Researchers are increasingly concerned that future migrations from Central America and Mexico into the US are likely to be much larger, spurred by the intensifying impacts of climate disruption and climate-exacerbated violence.

As more children and families arrive at the border, at least in part driven by climate-related factors, the US can either welcome them or continue to lock them up in polluted, for-profit immigrant jails.

Either way, more — and larger — migrations are on the way as anthropogenic climate disruption continues apace. Expanding an environmentally racist detention apparatus to greet future migrant influxes won’t stop them. Rather, it perpetuates the socially and environmentally toxic conditions that create climate-driven mass migrations in the first place, while cruelly twisting the real solutions to the crisis — climate and environmental justice — on their heads.

This report is part of a collaborative series on the environment and mass incarceration by Earth Island Journal and Truthout. It was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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