As hope for change in Obama immigration policy dwindles, activists speculate on the fate of family detention
When she first arrived in the U.S. with her two small children, Denia didn’t realize she was pregnant. Fleeing an abusive relationship in Honduras, she had traveled north to the U.S. to reunite with her mother, a naturalized citizen living in Houston. But instead of reuniting with their grandmother, Denia and her daughters found themselves in a medium-security prison, dressed in prison garb and forced to line up to be counted several times daily. Though pregnant, she was losing weight from lack of food. Guards shouted at her children and threatened to take them away if they misbehaved. Security lights were left on all night, and alarms went off if a child wandered from its cell during the night.
Denia remembers: “I was really scared. I would say: “Dear God- what am I going to do with a newborn here? He’ll die in this freezing cold. It was so cold, and the worst thing was that they wouldn’t give us enough blankets… And how could I get enough rest if resting is prohibited here? I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself properly the way one should after giving birth. I was really worried.” Given an $18,000 bond that they could not afford to pay, she despaired at the thought of giving birth in prison.
The rise of family detention
Unfortunately, Denia’s experiences are not unique. The U.S. has been detaining families since March 2001. In an effort to end what was labeled the ‘catch-and-release’ policy- wherein migrants with immigration violations were given a mandate to appear in court and then released back into the community- the Department of Homeland Security under Michael Chertoff began detaining all immigrants without documents- even those with small children. The first facility for families was an 84-bed converted nursing home in Berks County, PA. At Berks, families were separated by age and gender and slept in dorm-style rooms, 2–8 per room. (Children under 5 slept with their parent.) But even with Berks open, there was not enough room for all the families ICE was detaining. Some were still being released. Others were separated- adults sent to adult facilities while children as young as 6 months old were sent to children’s facilities or foster care. After 9/11, DHS announced it needed more room to expand, and turned to long-time partner Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for solutions.
The largest for-profit corrections company in the country, CCA is best known for its infamous failed bid to take over the corrections operations of the entire state of Tennessee. However, by 2000 CCA had hit hard times and its stocks were at an all-time low. In July 2005, it had been forced to shutter the T. Don Hutto Detention Facility- a medium-security prison in Texas- due to lack of demand. CCA jumped at the government’s offer to pay $2.8 million a month to house immigrant families. In May 2006, it reopened the prison as the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility. Little had changed except the name and the population. Razor wire still laced the fencing, though now with wooden playgrounds in the yard and painted murals in the halls.
“I was shocked. It was like nothing I had ever seen,” said Barbara Hines, director of the University of Texas Immigration Clinic and one of the first to visit Hutto. Frances Valdez, a former UT Immigration Clinic student, adds: “It was surreal. It was everything I had already experienced in other jails, but here was this baby. I would go out [to Hutto] asking [the inmates] about their immigration issues and … they started telling me about the conditions… They were like, "Hey, I can't be here, get me out of here. My kids are getting sick, and they can't eat the food and I can't eat the food, and they separate us at night and they yell at us and they only give us 15 minutes to eat and my children are really scared and crying and it's horrible.” Other reports from initial visits describe children in prison garb, poor sanitation, limited education for the children, only one hour of access to fresh air and recreation, and armed guards threatening the families.
Denia’s 5-year-old daughter remembers: “For me it was terrible because I would always dream at night that they were yelling at my mother and they were going take her to another jail. And they had told us that mothers who misbehave and take extra cookies in their pockets [for their kids to eat] would be sent somewhere else and …that they would take the children away from their mothers.
Word spread about the facility and outrage grew. An early report of the rape of an inmate by a guard mobilized neighbors. Local activists from Williamson County and nearby Austin began staging candlelight vigils and protests. Representatives from the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children testified to Congress about its findings at Hutto, recommending the facility be closed immediately. Jorge Bustamante, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, attempted an investigation on conditions in Hutto and was denied access. Two documentaries were made, and screenings staged across the country. Articles appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, The Economist, salon.com, and local papers.
In March 2007, the ACLU and UT Law Clinic waged a lawsuit against ICE maintaining that children were being held in inhumane conditions. Several months later, ICE settled and pledged improvements to facility. Education and recreation times increased, pregnant women were allowed more food, and families permitted to close the door to their rooms as they slept. CCA officials maintain that reforms at Hutto had been underway already and were not due to the lawsuit.
Immigrant detention continued to expand throughout the Bush years. Plans were announced for three similar facilities to be built in other parts of the country, and rumors spread of families held in other unauthorized facilities.
With Obama’s election, hopes soared that the new administration would usher in comprehensive change in immigration policy. In August of this year, ICE Secretary John Morton announced a reworking of the nation’s immigration jail network into a “truly civil detention center.” In August 2009, ICE announced Hutto was to stop taking families, and that plans for three additional family detention facilities were to be scrapped. Obama’s call for progressive reform was, it seemed, coming to fruition. By September 17th, all families had left the facility.
Family Detention Under Obama
Today, Hutto looks pretty much the same as it always has: a drab building tucked just out of town, sandwiched between a train car storage yard and fields of Texas beef cattle. The razor wire is gone, and freshly painted murals inside the facility depict smiling cartoon animals, a reminder to visitors of its former occupants. Hutto is back at maximum occupancy, though this time with women. Even before the last of the families were out, CCA had worked a new contract with ICE to house women from its other immigrant detention facilities at Hutto.
“By more fully utilizing the facility’s capacity and consolidating the female populations from multiple facilities, this change will yield substantial savings each month, “ ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said. And indeed, current reforms seem driven as much by the bottom line as by humanitarian concerns. By ending family detention at Hutto, ICE will save nearly $900,000 per month in contract costs.
The question remains, though: Where are arrested families going today? According to ICE, detained families will now be housed at Berks Family Residential Center in PA. Yet not a single family from Hutto made it to Berks; all were either deported or released. And at an 84-bed capacity, it is hardly sufficient for current needs, let alone for future expansion. Compounding this is an August announcement in the Reading Eagle that Berks County commissioners “are considering getting out of the alien-housing business.” New federal regulations prohibit governmental agencies from turning a profit on these types of services, and the county is just breaking even.
According to ICE spokesperson Carl Rusnok, today “each family.. is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The Berks Residential Family Facility is the only facility ICE now uses to house families. Families that are encountered may be placed at Berks, placed on an ‘alternative to detention’ or issued a notice to appear before a federal immigration judge and released on their own recognizance.”
But Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership worries: “I think it is still unclear what is happening to people apprehended at the border. ICE says it is sending people to Berks, but I think there is some concern ICE may facilitate a new family detention center. I think it is important to look critically at Berks… and see if conditions are adequate or if people are being held for long periods of time. Is Berks another 84 beds that ICE doesn’t have to use?” Libal adds: “The advocacy community is ready to fight for increased use of alternatives rather than increased family detention.”
Others worry that ICE has no intentions of limiting detention, only of avoiding the flashpoints that caused public outcry in the past. This spring, it released a request for comments on standards for a family residential facility, leading some to suggest that it will be building its own facilities. “ICE says they are in the process of developing a new assessment tool that will help them determine whether a family can be released, or placed into an alternatives program pending resolution of their status instead of being detained,” says Michelle Brane of the Women’s Refuge Commission*. “They have told us in the meantime that they are releasing families and using alternatives to detention.”
Alternatives to detention- such as supervised release and ankle-bracelet monitoring- allow a family to remain in the community while greatly improving the chances they’ll make their court hearing. It also saves the government a substantial sum of money: the most expensive alternatives to detention cost $14 per day, compared with detention rates that can exceed $100 per day.
“In general, ICE seems to be moving away from subcontracting its detention needs out to private companies and local jails,” said Lauren Martin, doctoral student at the University of Kentucky. This continued reliance on detention “indicates a lot of continuity between Bush and Obama. They’re going to build facilities for low-risk populations like asylum seekers, families, etc, and actually expand capacity.”
Though all sides agree that Hutto is better than it was when it initially opened, it’s hard to find such enthusiasm about the broader picture. “Even though Hutto no longer holds families, there’s still 512 women being held there. That’s not something that anyone would have advocated for. Beyond that, here they haven’t made any moves to shut down or improve the most egregious conditions in Texas detention centers… There’s a lot of skepticism,” contended Martin.
A recently report by Dr. Dora Schriro, former director of the ICE Office of Detention Policy, focuses federal priorities on detainee care and uniformity at detention centers. The report recommends that ICE establish standards and assessment tools for its detention facilities, improve medical care, and provide federal oversight of its detention operations- all goals lawyers and activists have been calling for.
But with nearly 380,000 immigrants detained in ICE custody a year- 30,000 on any given day in 300 facilities nationwide- it is clear that Obama has not brought a shift away from detention, only a repeal of some of the worse malpractices of the Bush administration. Where family detention will go from here, no one knows for sure. “ICE has made clear that they plan to issue [a Request For Proposals] and open a new facility, one that they say will be better suited to families with young children. It is still unclear what that means,” says Michelle Brane. “For the present, we are all still waiting for answers from ICE.”
footnote* The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children has since changed its name to Women’s Refugee Commission.