Anti-Crayon Rule

In In the News

November 17, 2016

Last week, crayons were banned at Karnes because ICE thinks children coloring could hurt their cushy relationship with GEO, the private prison company that operates the family detention center. This is what a harsh detention and deportation machine looks like in an Obama administration. Help us fight back now and for whatever a Trump Administration may bring. We're ready.

See our Letter to John Amaya and The Deputy Chief of Staff below.

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Mr. John Amaya

Senior Advisor & Deputy Chief of Staff

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Mr. Daniel Bible

Field Office Director

San Antonio Field Office

Dear Mr. Amaya and Mr. Bible,

We are writing on behalf of the Karnes Pro Bono Project to express our concern and to request a modification of your sudden policy change that prohibits children from using crayons in the visitation area. This new prohibition presents yet another obstacle to the provision of pro bono services by RAICES and the Karnes Pro Bono Project. As with other ICE policy changes, it has been implemented without input or discussion from the Pro Bono Project.

As you are aware, the Karnes Pro Bono Project is the primary provider of direct legal services to the detained families at the facility.  We advise and represent women in the credible fear process, immigration judge reviews, and requests for re-interviews before the asylum office.  In addition, the Project counsels women regarding release options and their on-going removal proceedings. Because of the number of women at Karnes and our limited volunteer pool, obstacles that impede our legal services mean that fewer women receive needed advice and representation.

Even before the ban on crayons, we have faced and continue to face significant impediments to working with traumatized women and children in the visitation area.  Women often have no choice other than to bring their children to the visitation area for meetings with their attorneys. Once in visitation, women must then make the difficult choice of allowing their children to sit in the small interview rooms with lawyers or leave them in the larger visitation room.

Many young children are unwilling to be separated from their mothers and instead, accompany their mothers in the interview rooms.  Having children color and draw provides a distraction for children while their mothers relate incidents of trauma, violence and abuse.  Other children sit outside the interview rooms and draw at the tables, so they are not forced to listen to their mothers’ harrowing narratives nor witness their mothers’ fragile emotional states during these interviews.

Older children also draw and color as they wait in the visitation area to discuss their asylum claims with the volunteer lawyers.  Supporters of the pro bono project have donated age-appropriate coloring books for older children and teens specifically designed to alleviate stress through meditative artistic expression.  Now these youth will only be allowed to watch television with primarily English language programming.

Restricting children to the small play area in the visitation room is an unacceptable alternative and once again, demonstrates the jail-like nature of the facility.  Children may only play with toys in the visitation area on a small rug that measures approximately 9 feet by 5 feet.  All of the children, regardless of how many or how old, must remain on this small rug in order to use the toys.  They may not move a toy from this small space. For example, children are not allowed to roll a plastic toy, like a truck, off the rug.  In fact, these children are reprimanded by GEO staff, sometimes harshly, if they do so.  In response, children begin to cry and seek out their mothers in the midst of an interview with legal counsel.  

Confining children to this small space also means that mothers must interrupt their interviews to tend to children who have moved off the mat and to explain to them these needless restrictions.  GEO staff also often yell at children who use the toys in a manner that the staff deems inappropriate (such as knocking a plastic toy on the floor) or speaking loudly while playing.  In short, children are not allowed to be children. Each interruption of this sort impedes the limited time volunteers have to provide legal assistance. There is no reasonable justification for restricting children’s access to toys and normal play in this manner. Thus, ICE’s response to the crayon ban that there will be more toys for the children on a small cramped rug is an unacceptable solution, especially since children are not allowed to bring toys into interview rooms.

Sending children to “child care” is not an acceptable alternative to these restrictive policies. First, the child care facility closes at 5:00 PM and the pro bono project sees clients until 8:00 PM.  Second, as explained previously, some children do not want to separate from their mothers and need to have their mothers within sight. Third, if the day care is full, mothers may not drop off their children there.  Priority is given to mothers with medical appointments, asylum interviews and court hearings. Finally, mothers also report that childcare workers will refuse to accept children who are crying.

ICE claims that this abrupt change is not a “new rule.” However, ICE has allowed volunteers to furnish crayons and markers to children since the pro bono project began in the fall of 2014, the costs of which have been borne by RAICES and the generosity of the community.  In addition, ICE’s claim that children have destroyed contractor property is no excuse for the policy.  Treating a child’s color markings as “destruction of property” is altogether inappropriate.  And such markings are a cost that comes with the detention of children. It is extremely disturbing that ICE’s concern for GEO’s property takes precedence over the well being of the children and their mothers’ rights to legal advice.   

Notably, ICE has proposed absolutely no middle ground.   In fact, just yesterday, November 16th, adults and teenagers had pens and highlighters confiscated. The guard on duty broadened the rule to say that no one of any age can color with any type of instrument. Why can’t adults use writing implements to pass the time while they wait in visitation? Why can’t children use washable markers or colored pencils as a reasonable compromise? Why can’t children play with toys throughout the visitation area?  

We look forward to hearing from you to address these serious impediments to the provision of legal services and the welfare of the children at Karnes.


Barbara Hines

Senior Fellow, Emerson Collective

Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Texas School of Law

Denise Gilman

Clinical Professor of Law

Director, University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic

Elissa Steglich

Clinical Professor of Law

University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic

Andrea Meza

Attorney, Equal Justice Works Fellow

Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services

Jenna Pollock

Family Detention Staff Attorney

Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services

Amy Fischer

Policy Director

Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services


Ms. Elizabeth Cedillo-Pereira

Senior Advisor to Director Sarah R. Saldaña

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Ms. Elizabeth Thornton

Legal Access Coordinator

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Ms. Juanita Hester

Assistant Field Office Director

San Antonio Field Office

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement