Facility angers ACLU, U. Texas students

AUSTIN, Texas (U-WIRE) – A mundane, state-of-the-art building outside of Austin, Texas, has stirred the hearts of two radio-television-film students, numerous immigrant rights groups on campus, the University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The facility under scrutiny is the privately owned T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a for-profit immigrant detention facility in Taylor, Texas.

Inside, approximately 200 immigrant children and their families live in what some people are calling inhumane conditions while awaiting their court hearings.

Nine-year-old Canadian Kevin Yourdkhani wrote a message to his prime minister pleading for rescue.

“I don’t like to stay in this jail. I’m only 9 years old. I want to go to my school in Canada. I’m sleeping beside the wall. Please Prime Minister Harper give visa for my family,” he said in his letter.

Fifteen-year-old Lithuanian Egle “Anna” Baubonyte expressed how she felt about the center in her plaintiff statement for a recently filed law suit.

“In my opinion, even if they are trying to make this place nicer and look like an actual residential center, it is still a prison to me. There’s no pediatrician. Nurses don’t care if babies are sick or not. They treat us like we’re nothing,” she said.

On March 6, the national ACLU joined with ACLU of Texas and the UT Immigration Law Clinic to file 10 lawsuits in federal court disputing the federal government’s detainment of immigrant children in the residential center. Lead counsel Vanita Gupta said her first visit to Hutto left her with a serious sense of urgency to do something.

“My first trip to Hutto was in early February. I have visited many Texas prisons before, and I was shocked to find that Hutto was no different than those and that such young children were being confined in a prison,” Gupta said. “I spent several days in the facility, speaking to detainees and their children and investigating the conditions.”

UT student groups respond

Passersby in the rainy West Mall over the last week-and-a-half may have stumbled upon giant message boards showcasing documentation of Yourdkhani, Baubonyte and other children’s pleas to be freed from the detention center. The display was organized by numerous student groups, including Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, the Campus Anti-War Movement to End the Occupation and the Public Affairs Alliance for Communities of Color. The political organization aims to “promote the theory and practice of equality and social justice,” among other goals, according to the Office of the Dean of Students. The children’s hand-written pleas and formal plaintiff statements were taken off of the ACLU Web site.

Wednesday night, this array of student groups sponsored a panel on the incarceration of immigrant families at the Hutto facility. Speakers discussed litigation surrounding the center, as well as alternatives to detaining children and their families, many of whom are asylum seekers.

“In August, I got a call from a woman saying her daughter and daughter’s baby were in jail in Taylor. I’ve never gotten a call about (a family being detained together); it’s always been about an adult by themselves,” said Frances Valdez, clinical instructor at the UT Immigration Law Clinic, via e-mail.

After arriving at the border, asylum seekers are detained while awaiting their asylum hearing, she said.

“They could sit in detention for months while awaiting the completion of the asylum process. If someone goes through the asylum process and is denied, they can then be deported back to their home country.”

The facility

The T. Don Hutto Residential Center is unique, because it is one of two detention centers in the country that detains non-Mexican families with children from all over the world on non-criminal charges. It is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the fifth-largest corrections system in the nation and founder of the private-prison industry, according to Hutto’s Web site. In May 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracted with the corporation to open the detention center after converting it from a medium-security prison.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said detaining families at Hutto was part of Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff’s Secure Border Initiative.

“The reason it was built was to detain families as a family unit. Before the facility existed, the families would get detained, and after they were processed and taken into custody, they were separated, because we didn’t have a facility that could detain families as a unit,” Pruneda said.

Prior to opening Hutto, the immigration agency’s policy was “catch and release,” in which immigrants would be issued a court date notice and released. According to the agency, this policy was ineffective, because undocumented immigrants rarely appeared in court.

“Some families were disregarding that notice, so therefore when they didn’t show up, they became fugitives. That was somewhat part of the Secure Border Initiative and another reason for the facility to come together,” Pruneda said.

Last summer, the federal government announced the end of “catch and release” and recently funded 6,700 beds in detention facilities.

Panelist Rebecca Bernhardt, immigration, border and national security policy director of the ACLU of Texas, spoke about the economic relationship between Hutto and the government.

“(Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has a contract with (Corrections Corporation of America), and CCA has a contract with Williamson County. Williamson County gets paid for doing very little,” Bernhardt said.

Another panelist, UT government senior Luissana Santibanez, who is also a MEChA activist and representative for the Austin nonprofit organization Grassroots Leadership, commented on the security corporation’s profiting from detainees.

“It’s in their interest to keep them detained, because the government pays up to $95 per day per immigrant to keep them in a private facility,” Santibanez said.

The lawsuits

Director of the UT Immigration Law Clinic Barbara Hines has been working closely with attorney Vanita Gupta on the detainees’ lawsuits.

“The lawsuit is to enforce a settlement agreement that the government agreed to in 1997 that set out settlement agreements to children,” Hines said.

The ACLU accuses Chertoff and five immigration officials of violating the U.S. Department of Justice settlement agreement in Flores v. Meese. This agreement required that detained children must receive proper health, educational and social provisions; be kept in the least restrictive setting possible; and be released to a family member as soon as possible.

The panelists said that each cell contains one metal bunk bed next to a toilet and that, contrary to the immigration agency’s Web site, Hutto detainees have to wear prison-like garb. They said Yourdkhani’s and Baubonyte’s letters, alone, show a clear discrepancy between the settlement’s requirements and the reality of the residential center.

Luissana Santibanez

Soft-spoken, yet firm, Santibanez spoke last during the panel. Her story rings atypical of most UT students – on top of going to class and being active on campus, she spent the last year-and-a-half supporting her three younger siblings while her mother was detained.

After being convicted of transporting undocumented immigrants within the state of Texas, her mother served a four-month prison sentence, she said.

Her mother was sent into detention under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. She was kept in security corporation’s Houston Processing Center from December 2005 until being deported to Mexico three weeks ago. Like many detainees, her mother was a permanent legal resident of the United States, Santibanez said.

“The hardest thing about having a family member in detention, especially when that person was the sole breadwinner of the family, was that it had a huge economic strain on our family,” Santibanez said. “Not only did I have to take care of my younger siblings, but make sure that every month my mom had enough money for toiletries, phone cards and pens and paper.”

Since her mother’s incarceration, Santibanez has dedicated a lot of energy to protesting the private prison industry, especially the facility in Hutto. She compared her mother’s experience to that of a child.

“If it was hard for my mom, a grown woman, to deal with being detained in a prison, I couldn’t imagine how traumatizing that same experience would be for children. So we’re working on it,” she said. “Hopefully, people from all backgrounds can join us on this. Regardless of how you feel on immigration in this country, we know people are pro-family and will eventually recognize that having children in jail is wrong.”

The ACLU advocates several alternatives to the Hutto facility.

“Alternatives would be releasing children and their parents into community homes and refugee shelters and utilizing the Intensive Supervision Assistant Program, an intensive security program which electronically monitors immigrants with ankle bracelets. None of these alternatives have ever been tried out for children and their parents,” Hines said.

The suggestion is calculated to be 55 percent less costly than detention, according to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Last semester, Santibanez was the subject of a documentary created by two students in radio-television film professor Andy Garrison’s RTF East Austin Stories class. When photojournalism and journalism senior Sarah Lim proposed the private detention center topic to her class, nobody but radio-television-film senior Jenny Alvarado raised their hand to join the project.

“A lot of people in the class were not behind it, because it covers so many different things regarding human rights and immigrant rights. It wasn’t just an East Austin story; it was a U.S. travesty story in East Austin,” Alvarado said.

Little did they know, a semester later the controversy surrounding Hutto would soar to the level of international news attention. The documentary, “Life’s Torn: The Impact of Deportation,” follows Santibanez and her siblings on a visit to see their mom in Houston. It will be posted sometime soon on the East Austin Stories Web site.

Looking forward

Since the case was filed on March 6, 9-year-old Yourdkhani was released from Hutto with his family. Six other children were, as well. Baubonyte remains in detention with her mother and sister, but the ACLU hopes to see them released like the others.

Professor Valdez from the law clinic expressed concern, however, for what the near future holds for Hutto detainees.

“We’re really worried about what’s going to happen this summer when the semester ends. We’re trying to put together a pro-bono panel that will be able to represent Hutto detainees for free,” Valdez said.

Gupta was more optimistic.

“The students will be gone, but Barbara Hines will be co-counsel. We’re still going to be litigating the cases, so we’re moving forward, because the judge is going to set a trial date,” she said.

On Tuesday, a conglomeration of immigrant-rights groups in Austin will rally and march down Congress Avenue to champion immigration reform. One proposal, House Concurrent Resolution 64, would pressure the Department of Homeland Security to utilize alternatives to substandard detainment. The rally starts at 4:30 p.m. on the south steps of the Capitol, and the march starts at 5:30 p.m.