U.S. Sued Over Detention Of Immigrants

U.S. sued over detention of immigrants

By Michael Martinez
Chicago Tribune national correspondent
Published April 9, 2007

TAYLOR, Texas — In flatlands beside silos and freight-train tracks, an old medium-security prison has been reborn as a detention site for suspected illegal immigrant families, helping end the nation's controversial “catch-and-release” practice.

But the new “catch-and-remove” initiative is under fire at the 500-bed T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a privately run government facility that opened last May as part of a plan to triple detention space to 60,000 beds to accommodate those picked up in workplace raids and border crackdowns.

Already, the family facility in Taylor for non-Mexican immigrants is at the center of a federal lawsuit by detainees and their attorneys, including lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, who allege that until recently parents and their children were treated worse than prison inmates. Federal officials told a judge that many of the problems cited in the complaints have been fixed.

Hutto represents a shift in federal policy on how non-Mexican suspected illegal immigrants are dealt with. As recently as 2005, U.S. authorities released more than 100,000 arrested immigrants after they were scheduled for a court hearing. Because the vast majority never showed up for their hearings — which can occur as long as two months after arrest — the U.S. seeks to detain arrested immigrants until their day in court. Whole families are now detained, and the federal government is trying to keep them intact at places like Hutto.

As before, suspected illegal immigrants from Mexico are routinely removed without formal hearings because it's easier to return them across the border.

In contrast to the catch-and-release policy, “we have moved more into a catch-and-detain stance,” said Richard Rocha, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Homeland Security Department.

But some of those arrested say detention was a nightmare.

Before the government said conditions had been improved, children were forced to wear urine-stained prison garb, confined to cells with open toilets up to 12 hours a day, fed bad food that led to illness and weight loss, deprived of toys in their bunks and received only an hour of schooling each weekday, according to court papers. Crying bouts were common. Guards threatened family separation if children continued crying or misbehaved.

“I think it is not fair to run away from torture to come to be tortured. Not physically, but mentally, psychologically and emotionally,” plaintiff Raouitee Pamela Puran said in court documents. She and her 4-year-old daughter are from Guyana and seeking asylum.

The harshest critics have likened the facility to an “internment camp.”

Though criticized last month by a federal judge who called the conditions “a little bit deplorable,” federal immigration officials say the facility provides a humane remedy for “one of the greatest impediments to border control” — the catch and release of non-Mexican immigrants, which ended last summer.

Rocha defended the Hutto facility as “a modern facility designed to humanely accommodate families with children who are detained.”

In congressional testimony last month, John Torres, ICE's director of the Office of Detention and Removal Operations, said the families in Hutto “are not mistreated.”

But five days later in a courtroom in Austin, Texas, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks said he was “convinced” there could be psychological injury to the detained children.

When Justice Department attorney Victor Lawrence told the judge that improvements were being made, Sparks responded: “Why did there have to be changes in the first place? I mean, this is detention. This isn't the penitentiary. Even in the penitentiary the lawyers can see their clients one-on-one and do not have to speak in front of children.”

The judge has yet to rule on request for an injunction seeking the plaintiffs' release.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 10 children by the ACLU, the University of Texas Law School and a Houston law firm, says detentions should occur in a “non-penal, homelike” setting that could include ankle-bracelet electronic monitoring. So far, only three of the 10 remain in the center; the others were released to family members who are citizens or permanent residents.

Among those three children is Egle Baubonyte, 15, a freshman at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake who arrived in the U.S. in March 2005. Her sister Saule, 9, is also being detained. Their mother, Rasa Bunikiene, was arrested with the sisters last Dec. 15, ACLU lawyer Vanita Gupta said. The family is from Lithuania. Attempts to interview them were rejected by their attorneys.

“If ICE is going to comply with the law and detain families, it needs to comply with [a 1997 court] settlement for standards for the detention of children,” Gupta said. “We're not saying that ICE can't enforce immigration laws.”

The Hutto facility isn't licensed by the state for education and other child-welfare issues because the family population was too novel to come under any one state agency's jurisdiction, federal officials said in court.

Working with authorities in preparing detention standards for Hutto are the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which in February found “extremely poor” conditions at Hutto and “less than ideal” conditions at an 84-bed family detention facility in Berks County, Pa., that was once a nursing home.

Hutto recently has made improvements, including increasing school and recreation to seven hours a day, offering better food, issuing regular clothes to kids and buying more than $4,000 worth of toys, according to recent testimony by ICE's officer in charge of the facility, Simona Colon.

Since last October, about 700 detainees seeking asylum were released, usually after 90 days or more in Hutto, and more than 400 others were returned to their home country after typically 40 days of detention, Colon told the court.

Over the past year, 7,500 detention beds have been added in Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, New Mexico and Texas, and the average daily detainee population has risen to about 28,000 from 18,000 last July, Torres told Congress.

The infrastructure has alarmed activists.

“It's shocking to the conscience when you look at it,” said Andrea Black, an attorney with the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition that observes detention practices. “There's a lot of financial interests and incentives at stake.”

In the case of Hutto, ICE is paying $2.8 million a month for the private, for-profit Corrections Corporation of America to run the site, which amounts to about $186 a day per detainee, said Michelle Brane of the Women's Commission.

But less costly alternatives exist, such as $22-a-day electronic monitoring, advocates said.

“It would seem to me that we're spending a lot more on immigration than we did before,” said Chris Jimmerson, executive director of the Political Asylum Project of Austin.