On Aug. 27, the ACLU announced a settlement with ICE that improves conditions for immigrant children and their families inside the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, a former medium security prison managed for ICE by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America. The case was to go to trial in Austin on Aug. 27. The settlement was approved on Aug. 30 by Judge Sam Sparks of the US District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin. “Though we continue to believe that Hutto is an inappropriate place to house children, conditions have drastically improved in areas like education, recreation, medical care, and privacy,” said Vanita Gupta, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.
The settlement addresses 10 lawsuits filed in March 2007 against Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and six ICE officials on behalf of 26 immigrant children between the ages of 1 and 17 who were detained at Hutto with their parents. (ACLU press release, Aug. 27; Houston Chronicle, Aug. 28; AP, Aug. 30) Nearly all of them were awaiting determinations on their asylum claims. As the lawsuits progressed, all 26 plaintiffs were released. The final six children were released just days before the settlement was finalized, and are now living in freedom with family members while pursuing their asylum claims. They include Andrea Restrepo, a 12-year-old girl from Colombia, who was held in a small cell at Hutto for nearly a year with her mother and 9-year-old sister. “I feel much better, I feel tranquil, I can do things now I couldn’t do there,” said Restrepo. “I am trying to forget everything about Hutto. I feel free. It was a nightmare.” (ACLU press release, Aug. 27)
Toronto-born 10-year-old Kevin Yourdkhani, another of the original 26 plaintiffs, was skeptical. “I trust nobody there,” he said. “It’s good that they are fixing up the problems but they should just shut it down.” Yourdkhani was detained with his parents at Hutto earlier this year for 45 days before Canada agreed to accept them and reconsider the parents’ case. There are currently about 100 children being held at Hutto. (Toronto Star, Aug. 29)
Conditions at Hutto have gradually improved as a result of the lawsuits. Children are no longer required to wear prison uniforms and are allowed much more time outdoors. Educational programming has expanded and guards have been instructed not to discipline children by threatening to separate them from their parents. “This agreement with ICE will make permanent important changes that already have been made and will ensure additional improvements in the future,” said Gouri Bhat, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
Soon after the lawsuits were filed, ICE changed its policy and began using the Hutto facility mainly to detain families caught crossing the border who are to be quickly deported under the “expedited removal” program, and began to issue bonds to allow the release of families who had passed credible fear interviews and were waiting decisions on their asylum cases. Under the settlement, if a family is held for 30 days, government officials will have to consider releasing them on bond. If a family is held longer than 60 days, government officials must explain why.
The settlement also requires ICE to allow children over the age of 12 to move freely within Hutto; provide a full-time, on-site pediatrician; eliminate the “head count” system that required families to stay in their cells 12 hours a day; install privacy curtains around toilets; offer field trip opportunities to children; supply more toys and age- and language-appropriate books; and improve the nutritional value of food. ICE must also allow regular legal orientation presentations by local immigrants’ rights organizations; allow family and friends to visit Hutto detainees seven days a week; and allow children to keep paper and pens in their rooms. ICE’s continued compliance with such reforms will be subject to independent monitoring by the judge assigned to mediate the case, US Magistrate Judge Andrew W. Austin. (ACLU press release, Aug. 27; Houston Chronicle, Aug. 28)
“We are thrilled at what we were able to accomplish through litigation and mediation,” said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director of the ACLU of Texas. “But the fact remains that our government should not be locking up innocent children–period. That is not what America is about. It is time for Congress to intervene and end the policy of family detention.” More information about Hutto and the ACLU’s litigation is available online at: www.aclu.org/hutto. (ACLU press release, Aug. 27)
In an Aug. 27 statement, ICE defended conditions at Hutto and said it welcomed the judge’s outside monitoring because it “will help improve communication about the facility and end any misconceptions and allegations falsely made about the Hutto facility.” (Houston Chronicle, Aug. 28)
From Immigration News Briefs, Sept. 2
See our last post on the immigration crackdown.