Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Fort Worth lawmaker criticizes border fence, detention facility

Fort Worth Star Telegram
September 9, 2008

A state representative from Fort Worth is at the Texas-Mexico border lambasting the federal government’s immigration enforcement efforts.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said that conditions at a detention facility are terrible and that the construction of fencing along the border is a waste of money.

Federal officials defended their work as humane and effective.

Burnam’s criticism came after he and state Reps. Kirk England, D-Grand Prairie, and Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who were in South Texas for a House subcommittee hearing, toured Willacey Detention Center near Raymondville on Thursday. The facility, which is run by Willacey County, has a contract with the federal government to hold immigrant detainees.

Burnam criticized the facility as having poor conditions for the people held there.

"The conditions are not OK," Burnam said. "They’re eating out of wretched plastic plates, and they’re eating wretched food."

He said up to 50 people were in a common area bunk space "with almost no personal space at all."

Adrian Ramirez, field office director for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in San Antonio, which covers all of South Texas, said food served at the jail is certified by a dietician as nutritious and is served on plastic dishes because metal or glass are not safe.

He said ICE officials check on the jail daily to ensure that it meets national detention standards.

England said he "would lean closer to the side of adequate" when describing the jail’s conditions, but said he was surprised that immigrants were not appointed a lawyer for free if they can not afford one, as is the practice in criminal courts.

Ramirez said there are no court-appointed attorneys in immigration courts.

"This isn’t a criminal proceeding; this is an administrative process. That is why they don’t get the same benefit," Ramirez said. "It’s the same everywhere, in every immigration court throughout the country."

Burnam said he will join the mayors of border cities Brownsville and McAllen in a press conference in Brownsville today to denounce the border fence.

Anchia declined to comment about any of the immigration issues. England described his visit to an area where fencing will be built as more of a "fact-finding mission."

Burnam said he saw areas where the fence is cutting through agricultural land far from the border.

"This is the wrong solution. You don’t build a wall like this. I just don’t think this is an intelligent use of resources," he said. "It’s a retrenchment. We’re going to retreat a mile to protect our border. That’s absurd, and the bottom line is it won’t work."

Congress voted to put up hundreds of miles of fencing along the border in 2006. Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain both voted for it.

Nearly 340 miles of fencing was built by mid-August, and an additional 670 miles could be built by year’s end, according to the Homeland Security Department.

Lloyd Easterling, an assistant chief with the U.S. Border Patrol in Washington, D.C., said fencing is not the only answer but is an effective tool in securing the border.

He said it is effective "when combined with the technology and personnel. When the right mix of all that is put in, we have seen proven results."


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