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Same dog, different collar

Effective immediately, the Obama Administration will stop sending families to Hutto. But is this really a victory for immigrant-rights advocates?

Courtesy Photo
Houston Colectiva protests the T. Don Hutto Facility on June 20, 2009.

 

Es el mismo perro con diferente collar (same dog, different collar),” was Antonio Díaz’s reaction to the government’s decision, announced August 6, to finally yield to the demands of Díaz and other activists that no more undocumented-immigrant families (especially families with small children) be imprisoned at the for-profit T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas.

Pressured by regular marches and an ACLU lawsuit (settled in 2007) that demanded better conditions for the detainees, the 512-bed “residential center” (a former state prison located in Taylor, 30 miles north of Austin) gradually reduced its inmate population from 427 to 126, and last week’s decision marks the virtual death of Hutto as a family detention center. Instead, said the Feds, it will be converted into an immigration jail for women, while Hutto’s detainees will be sent to the 84-bed Berks Family Shelter Care Facility in Leesport, Pennsylvania.

But according to Vanita Gupta, ACLU staff attorney with the Racial Justice Program, Berks is “already full,” so most Hutto detainees will be sent to other “community-based homes.”  Berks could not be reached for comment.

How big — or small — a victory this is for immigration-reform advocates is still a matter of debate. 

“This is terrific news,” wrote child and family advocate Michelle Brané for the Huffington Post. She believes the authorities are “sincerely” trying to make things more humane for the detainees, nonetheless acknowledging that “the Obama administration has a lot more work to do.” 

“This victory is more than just about T. Don Hutto,” said  Jay J. Johnson-Castro, founder of advocacy group Border Ambassadors, in an email circulated among activists. “After the suffering of thousands of children in a privately run ‘for profit’ prison, [it] is a victory for not only the children, but for the small group of ‘we the people’ who engaged in the confrontation of human dignity over human cruelty, a group that grew to thousands around the country.” 

But Díaz, a spokesperson for the Texas Indigenous Council, will have none if it. While
Johnson-Castro (who at press time hadn’t replied to an interview request from the Current) tends to see the glass as half-full and calls for unity in the continuing struggle (“we could all have woken up today with totally nothing new in our fight to free the children,” he wrote), for Díaz many questions need to be addressed before anyone pops champagne corks. 

“This is all a way for the authorities to diffuse the galvanization of Texan communities coming together to free these children,” he told the Current. “Pennsylvania has a very racist atmosphere, and there [the community] wouldn’t unite the way we had done here.” 

Market forces are at play, too. Hutto is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, which collects as much as it “corrects”: CCA’s federal contract for Hutto is worth $2.8 million per month. If there are no detainees, there is no money. Not surprisingly, shortly after the Hutto changes were announced, the CCA felt the need to reassure its nervous investors. According to the tdonhutto.blogspot.com site: 

“[CCA] assured investors that they still expect plenty of business from the federal government. ‘In some respects there may not have been much of a change,’ said Damon Hininger, CCA’s President and Chief Operating Officer during a conference call on Thursday with investors. Hininger said CCA had ‘just learned yesterday that ICE wants us to renegotiate’ the Hutto contract and that a timetable for the negotiations had not been set for transitioning Hutto to hold female immigrants. But he pointed to the Obama Administration’s expansion of the Bush Administration’s Secure Communities program as proof that demand for immigrant detention beds would continue.”

(The Secure Communities program, launched on March 28, 2008, allows local law-enforcement agencies to access Department of Homeland Security and FBI biometric databases.) 

On Monday in Guadalajara, at the annual trilateral summit with the presidents of Mexico and Canada, Obama said that immigration reform was going to have to wait until 2010, while his administration and Congress give priority to economic and health care related issues. 

“It’s very important for us to sequence these big initiatives in a way where they don’t all just crash at the same time,” Obama said, according to the Associated Press. However, the Hutto plans and the larger picture of detention-center reform remain unchanged: The new Office of Detention Policy and Planning will be directed by Dora Schriro, special adviser to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. Schriro’s agency will coordinate the creation of new civil detention centers and the preservation of the existing 32,000-bed system, which costs
$2.4 billion annually. The potential good news for activists is that the ODDP will also create two advisory boards, so that community groups and immigration-reform advocates can give input. 

But the week’s most significant news happened Tuesday, when the ACLU announced the extension of its settlement agreement with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, preserving the improved conditions at Hutto until all families are released or transferred. The original agreement, which was set to expire on August 29, resulted from the ACLU’s 2007 lawsuit on behalf of 26 immigrant children.

“Now that the long-overdue decision has been made to end the detention of families at Hutto,” said Gupta, who led ACLU’s Hutto lawsuit, “the government is to be commended for wanting to ensure that the improvements in the facility’s conditions that have been made during the past two years remain in place until there are no families left there.”

But to Díaz, it’s semantics: The government concedes that children should not be imprisoned in “criminal” facilities, he says, so it renames the facility in order to make them more palatable. In other words: “Family Shelter Care Facility” my butt. 

“They can call it whatever they want to call it,” Díaz told the Current. “But if families are not free to go, it’s still a detention center. We used Berks as a template of what we wanted Hutto to look like but, in my mind, a golden cage is still a cage. If you’re not free, you’re not free.” 

That’s where critics are wrong, says Gupta.

“It’s not a question of sending detainees from Hutto to Berks,” Gupta said. “That’s not what’s happening. Hutto is not going to detain families anymore, and most of those families are going to be sent to community-based, alternative programs.

“... they won’t be in detention,” says Gupta. “There’s only two family detention facilities in this country, and one of them is closing [for families]. Simply, this is a victory because a lot more detainees will no longer be detained.” •

At press time, the ICE press office hadn’t replied to the Current’s inquiries. 


What is T. Don Hutto? 


The T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, 30 miles north of Austin, is a private detention facility for non-Mexican, non-criminal immigrant families awaiting a decision on their status or deportation to their country of origin. It replaced the “catch-and-release” program, in which  undocumented aliens would be released pending an appearance before an immigration judge. The 520-bed facility currently holds 127 detainees, most of them from Central and South America, but also from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

Hutto is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America through a contract  with U.S. Immigration  and Customs Enforcement.

In early 2007, the ACLU sued on behalf of the detainees, demanding improvement of conditions at the center. As reported by the New York Times, “some children under 10 stayed [at Hutto] as long as a year, mainly confined to family cells with open toilets, with only one hour of schooling a day,” and “children told of being threatened by guards with separation from their parents, many of them asylum-seekers from around the world.” After CCA addressed many of the concerns, the lawsuit was settled in 2007, and its provisions, set to expire on August 29, were extended Monday until all detainees are released from Hutto.

On Thursday, August 6, the Obama Administration announced it will no longer send immigrant families to Hutto.


The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child


The United Nations General Assembly signed the convention — a legally binding international document — on November 30, 1989. Article 37 of the convention states that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

Somalia is one of only two UN member countries that didn’t sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The other? The United States.

Vanita Gupta, a lawyer with the ACLU who led the lawsuit against Hutto, told the New York Times in an email that “the ending of family detention at Hutto is welcome news and long overdue,” but added that “without independently enforceable standards … and basic due process before people are locked up, it is hard to see how the government’s proposed overhaul of the immigration detention system is anything other than a reorganization or renaming of what was in place before.” After ICE agreed to extend the provisions of the 2007 settlement on Tuesday, Gupta told the Current she was “ecstatic, but there is much more work to do.”

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