Everybody does not love Raymondville, a federal detention facility 40 miles north of the Mexican border, near Brownsville, Texas. Constructed in the summer of 2006 to hold persons suspected of immigration violations of various kinds, Raymondville now holds 2000 prisoners awaiting processing. They are brought from all over the United States, so most of them are far away from family or any other support.
According to attorney Jodi Goodwin, who works with these persons, processing can take from weeks to many many months: you never can predict. And the only inmates to receive legal advice are those with money to hire a private attorney, or lucky enough to find one pro bono. There is no legal aid service to help them through the morass of documents and regulations in a typical immigration case.
Raymondville is run by Management Training Corporation (MTC) of Utah, under contract with the Department of Homeland Security. Some call them part of the prison-industrial complex that has a strong financial interest in such facilities.
What are the conditions under which these immigration prisoners are held? Jay Johnson Castro, a border activist from Del Rio, Texas, calls it a “concentration camp” (albeit without the ovens). Elizabeth Garcia (CPT-Brownsville) and others have nicknamed it “RITMO” because they see it as similar to Guantanamo (GITMO), where prisoner maltreatment has been documented.
The facility is also called “Tent City”, because it consists of ten huge tents of Kevlar-like material, holding 200 people each. In the middle of each are the toilets, with no privacy. Dining tables are next, and bunks are around the edges. Food is inadequate and does not meet the nutritional needs of people from the many different countries and cultures there. And people are held in the windowless tents 23 hours a day.
This facility is surrounded by two 14-foot chain-link fences, with double coils of razor wire on top and in between. Security at the camp appears to be as heavy as at the adjacent state and federal prisons. But most of these prisoners are only accused of various immigration violations and are not required under the law to be detained while being processed. Yet, here they are.
On Sunday morning, after Mass and breakfast at San Felipe de Jesus in Brownsville, the CPT Borderlands Witness team headed to Raymondville for a vigil. We parked in the lot out front and got out our banner, saying “Close RITMO Now”. We then proceeded to walk around the facility on the west side of the fence. To our surprise there were no restrictive signs. But it was not long before two guards driving the perimeter road stopped and told us to go back. We did and while walking at a moderate pace towards the front, were able to show our banner to some young men in the yard inside. They excitedly peered through a hole in the screening and gave us thumbs up signs. The guards walked respectfully behind us, just making sure we kept going until we reached the front corner of the administrative building.
There they said we could hold our prayer vigil on the sidewalk, which we proceeded to do for the next half hour. Sarah led us in the beautiful Litany of Resistance from the CPT worship book, with a few additions to fit the border situation. Meanwhile, the duty officer from MTC arrived with one of his assistants. After asking a few questions they hung out and observed the liturgy from afar.
Later, apparently on word from above, he directed us to the parking lot, where we continued our vigil. The only audience was the guards. When invited, they declined to join us, but it appeared that some were listening.
Then the duty officer approached and asked our names, which we gave. He also identified our car and went inside, presumably to check it out. As the hour drew to an end, a county official came out with him and said the sheriff was on his way. Not sure of the implications, but apparently free to go, we packed up our banner, got in the car, and headed down the road. On the way out we passed a Willacy County sheriff on his way in, but he showed no interest in us.
In retrospect, we both got what we wanted: CPT saw the Raymondville Detention Center, and held a prayerful vigil for nearly an hour, right there, in full view of the guards—and for a few minutes, of some of the prisoners. The guards managed the situation in a way that caused no problems for them and got us out of there before noontime, on a quiet Texas Sunday.
Did this help the condition of the prisoners? Did this help close this distasteful facility? Time will tell. We hope readers of this blog will learn more about Raymondville and ask our political leaders to close Raymondville, or at least improve the conditions there.