February 10, 2007
an icy embrace for immigrant families
The following link is essential viewing for all concerned with humanity in the midst of the immigration debate:
Watch the KXAN tour of T. Don Hutto Facility (look for video link in upper left hand on KXAN's webpage)
Here is the story as told in the Houston Chronicle:
TAYLOR — Painted sunflowers bloomed on the cinderblock. Teddy bears smiled from metal bunk beds in the cells. Slides and swings adorned a small playground rimmed in razor wire.
At the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, shown to the media Friday for the first time since it opened nine months ago, images of childhood were juxtaposed against the cavern-cold feel of a former prison. It's a place where standard-issue navy detention uniforms come in infant onesies.
The Hutto Center, built as a correctional center for adults, is now one of only two facilities in the country at which immigrant parents and children seeking asylum or facing deportation are detained, at a cost of $2.8 million a month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who led the tour said.
"We've been historically criticized for breaking families apart," said Gary Mead, ICE assistant director for detention and removal operations in Washington, D.C. "We feel this is a humane approach for keeping families together."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the immigration department abandoned its "catch and release" method of handling immigrant families from countries other than Mexico, largely because most immigrants failed to report to their court hearings.
Human rights groups say that Hutto, operated by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America, is no place for children. Detainees have complained of poor food, lagging medical attention, substandard education and a sharply structured penal-like environment that Congress has specifically advised against where children are concerned.
"This is too high of a price for children to pay," said Vanita Gupta, with the American Civil Rights League's national legal office in New York. "You can change a lot of things at the outer edges but you can't make it humane."
ICE officials cited several improvements made to the facility, such as removing much of the razor wire, increasing school instruction from one hour to four, tweaking the menu and allowing more recreational time.
Attorney Barbara Hines, who oversees the immigration law clinic at the University of Texas, said the changes were forced. She stood outside the facility Friday, holding up crayon drawings she said were colored by detained children.
One screamed "HELP!! I hate this place" in red letters and the other depicted a girl outside a prison-like building with the word feo, "ugly" in Spanish.
"None of the changes that they're making are voluntary," Hines said. "They're making these in response to a public outcry of people who say that it is wrong to imprison children."
ICE officials dismissed allegations of poor conditions, showing reporters a colorful classroom where children crowded around a bright-eyed teacher. In a school-like cafeteria, families enjoyed pizza, which ICE officials acknowledged was a rare treat that just happened to coincide with the media tour.
Medical care is readily available and prompt, with 90 percent of detainees seen on the same day they request attention, said Thomas Hochberg with the U.S. Public Health Service.
The facility's doctor, Leroy T. Soto, who visits once a week, said the children are well-fed and "gain weight more than lose weight." Hochberg said a rash problem detainees reported is not a "particular" concern at the facility.
Sunlight streamed through narrow slits of window in stark cells, furnished with metal beds, a commode, urinal and, in some cases, makeshift bedding on the concrete floor. Cell doors are always unlocked, but if detainees open their doors at night, a laser beam senses it and alerts guards.
A high school-sized gym features basketball hoops, and Hutto officials said it offered daily recreation, including basketball tournaments and yoga.
In a computer lab, detainee children faced blank screens and appeared confused as an instructor coached "put your cursor aqui."
Mead, who also visited Hutto for the first time this week, led a group of reporters through a hurried trip of half the facility as he fielded their questions. Detained parents and children, dressed in uniform green and blue sweat suits and scrubs, gawked at the media circus while offering no words and rare smiles.
Reporters were prohibited from talking with detainees. A Chronicle request to interview several detainees was not accommodated Friday and is pending before San Antonio regional ICE director Marc Moore.
Two Hutto center guards, who spoke with the Chronicle on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, agreed with some of the detainees' allegations, such as lax medical care, but said other claims, such as detainees being placed in restraints, were exaggerated.
"It's a jail," said one guard who has worked at the center for several months. "When you get told what time you can eat, what time you can take your shower, what time you can go to bed and lie down, I mean it's not a residential center, it's no family-like place. You can pretty it up all you want but it's a jail."
Both guards told the Chronicle in separate interviews this week that the Hutto center was being sanitized, or "prettied up," for the media tour, with furniture, artificial trees and other amenities appearing in the facility immediately prior to the tour. ICE officials said any changes were regular maintenance.
The guards said detainee parents and children sometimes wait up to two days to see a nurse and that food is bland and poorly prepared, but they said most of the problems at Hutto are caused by a small minority of guards, holdovers from Hutto's former days, who think they're still running a prison.
"I think everything would get fixed if the captains would get some people skills," a female guard said. "And that's what it comes down to, them being a little more humane to their residents. It doesn't take much."
No 'free ticket'
Education at Hutto is as good as the teachers, the guards said, explaining that quality varies widely with the teachers' motivation and language skills but that the curriculum does seem limited to English language instruction and drawing.
"The basics, arithmetic, reading, I didn't see that," the guard said. "These residents are here, they're trying to make a better life for themselves. When they leave this place, if they are allowed to stay here, if their kids go into a regular school system, they're going to be way behind. Besides teaching them the language, I think they also need to know 'what's two plus two.' "
ICE officials said teachers follow Texas Education Agency guidelines for curriculum and all are certified or working toward certification; three or four of the nine teachers are bilingual, while all teacher's aides speak Spanish, officials said.
While the capacity of Hutto is 512, Mead said the population hasn't exceeded 420, a fact he thinks is telling of the success of ICE's family detention efforts.
"That's a sign to us that people have gotten the message that coming as a family is not going to be a free ticket into the country," Mead said.
Posted by almamia at February 10, 2007 2:28 PM