Immigration officials called it a “situation” and a “disturbance.” Advocates have described it as a “horrifying scene.” Whatever happened on Wednesday afternoon at a South Texas immigration detention center for families led to 16 adult men being taken away to spend the night in a different facility.
A conflict broke out Wednesday afternoon between dozens of migrant fathers and the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement guards manning the Karnes County Residential Center, which is currently housing migrant fathers reunited with their children after being separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. They were to be returned on Thursday, an ICE spokeswoman said.
According to lawyers for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a Texas nonprofit, armed ICE officers stormed the facility’s hallways and arrested more than a dozen migrant parents who had only recently been reunited with their children. A RAICES attorney said an ICE officer told him guards had to intervene to stop the “disruptive behavior” that had caused “safety concerns.” But advocates characterized it as backlash against migrants who had been speaking out about their conditions.
ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said no children were involved in the scuffle, as they were in class, and there were no injuries sustained on either side. Pruneda said about 40 men were involved, but did not give details about the “disturbance.”
“ICE San Antonio deployed additional law enforcement resources to control the situation, and as a precautionary measure, instructed all visitors to leave the facility,” Pruneda said in a statement.
Tension has been bubbling up at detention facilities in the three weeks since the government’s deadline for reuniting migrant families who were split at the border. Many families have been detained together since July 26 or even earlier, and a federal judge this week said the government cannot yet deport reunited families, meaning many will stay detained together longer.
Earlier this month, advocates said, hundreds of men and boys at the Karnes facility mounted a hunger strike, with parents refusing to eat or drink and children declining to participate in scheduled school activities.
ICE has disputed that account. A spokeswoman told the San Antonio Express News there was “no mass protest or hunger strike,” just a few dozen migrants staging a “brief sit-in.”
Advocates suggested that Wednesday’s incident may have been a form of payback for that outcry.
“The facts strongly seem to suggest that this was retaliation for otherwise perfectly lawful, peaceful protest,” said Ryan Clough, an attorney for RAICES.
Advocates said at least two fathers were just sitting in their rooms when ICE officers arrived, armed, to take them away. Some fathers, speaking anonymously and through translators on a press call Friday afternoon, said they could not understand why they were targeted.
One Honduran father described officers in helmets and carrying guns taking him away from the facility without explanation. The fathers were removed while their children were in school.
“I couldn’t understand, I could not imagine being separated from my child again without being able to say goodbye,” one father said through a translator. “It was as if we were criminals.”
One little boy under the age of 10, the son of a father who was temporarily taken from the facility, said he spent the day “crying for my papi.”
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.