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Families Behind Bars, Critics call detainees facility 'harmful' for immigrant families, & Lockdown in Greeley

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    Click here to return to the browser-optimized version of this page. This article can be found on the web at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070226/cooper
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 9, 2007

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      This article can be found on the web at

      Lockdown in Greeley

      by MARC COOPER
      [from the February 26, 2007 issue]
      Greeley, Colorado

      On the northern edge of this frozen-over city of 90,000 halfway between Denver and Cheyenne, Swift & Co.'s beef processing plant squats like a windowless concrete bunker alongside the snow-covered railroad tracks. The winter air hangs heavy with the stench of animal waste. And the three strings of barbed wire atop the chain-link fence that girdles the facility give the hulking complex all the appeal of some forsaken, remote prison. Nevertheless, the steam snaking high and gently from the plant's smokestacks has for several decades served as a beacon of hope and promise for thousands of immigrants, mostly Mexican, who have come north looking for a better life.

      Working on the meatpacking floor can be a grueling, monotonous, dangerous routine, making thousands of the same cuts or swipes every day, and annual injury and illness rates might run 25 percent or more, but a union job with a wage of $12-$13 an hour, enough to support a family, seems worth the pain and risk.

      At least until December 12, the holiday celebrating the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe. What materialized in front of the Swift gates that morning was more like a vision of hell. Shortly after 7 am a half-dozen buses rolled up with a small fleet of government vans, which unloaded dozens of heavily armed federal agents backed by riot-clad local police. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents sealed off all entrances and exits and formed a perimeter around the factory. Then others barged inside and started rounding up the whole workforce.

      Some of the frightened workers jumped into cattle pens; others hid behind machinery or in closets. Those who tried to run were wrestled to the ground. Sworn statements by some workers allege that the ICE agents used chemical sprays to subdue those who didn't understand the orders barked at them in English. The plant's entire workforce was herded into the cafeteria and separated into two groups: those who claimed to be US citizens or legal residents and those who didn't.

      While the Greeley plant was being locked down, more than 1,000 ICE agents simultaneously raided five other Swift factories in Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah and Minnesota. By the end of the day, nearly 1,300 immigrant workers had been taken into custody--about 265 of them from Greeley. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff boasted that the combined raids amounted to the largest workplace enforcement action in history. ICE Assistant Secretary Julie Myers would later claim that Operation Wagon Train, as the raids were dubbed, dealt a major blow in the "war against illegal immigration."

      Now critics of the raids--workers, union reps, clergy, community leaders, policy analysts and lawyers--wonder what the high-profile sweep accomplished other than to traumatize a few hundred Latino families and to cost Swift an estimated $30 million in lost production. If anything, it starkly reveals, once again, a federal immigration policy completely detached from economic and social realities and a Bush White House incapable of moving ahead with much-promised reform. "What has changed because of all this?" rhetorically asks Francisco Granados, a Greeley businessman and volunteer providing relief services to the affected families. "Nothing. Nada. The whole system is set up to make you lie."

      There was one new twist in the December 12 action that distinguished it from earlier headline-making sweeps. Homeland Security and ICE claimed the raids were triggered by a federal probe into identity-theft rings. Eventually, about 240 workers were hit with criminal charges, mostly involving the use of a false or stolen Social Security number. But that meant the other thousand or so detained workers were held only on immigration violations, undermining the identity-theft rationale for the roundup.

      "By saying these raids were about identity theft, ICE and the Bush Administration suddenly changed the rules of the game," says Mark Grey, director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration. By highlighting the identity-theft angle, DHS officials have cast into a sinister light a common practice, at worst a victimless crime. The undocumented workers caught up in the sweep weren't using other identities to run up someone's credit card bill or push someone into financial ruin but to collect their own paychecks, since they had used others' Social Security numbers to get on payroll. Says Grey: "The game until now has been an elaborate choreography among the employers who need the immigrant workers, the immigrants who want these jobs, the communities who need them, the cattlemen who depend on them and the government whose basic motto has been: Don't ask, don't tell."

      Swift, whose headquarters are here in Greeley, tried unsuccessfully to head off the raids after company records were subpoenaed by ICE last spring. In early December company lawyers were denied a court injunction against the raids. For the past decade, Swift has used the government's Basic Pilot program, which supposedly verifies the validity of each new employee's Social Security number. But the program doesn't catch a number used by multiple individuals. Swift, then, played "the game" and so was ready, on the day of the raid, to issue a statement saying the arrests "violate the agreements" with the government "and raise serious questions as to the government's possible violation of individual workers' civil rights."

      What nobody, including ICE, can answer is why, if the real targets were those people with stolen Social Security numbers, federal officials didn't go quietly into the Swift factories and, armed with warrants, simply arrest the suspects. Why the brash paramilitary operation? "I'll tell you why," says an indignant Robert McCormick, a Greeley immigration attorney representing about sixteen of the workers. "This is indeed a declaration of war on the immigrant community. This is about Republicans trying to appease their core bloc of supporters. Yeah, some people got a big kick out of this. But I think most Americans were revolted by it. Here in town, a lot of people have said they want no part of it. And others, I assure you, are going to wind up being very ashamed of it."

      When I arrive in Greeley about three weeks after the raids, the entire town seems engulfed by cross-cutting emotions of bewilderment, fear, anger and resolve. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, the union that represents the Greeley workers and called the level of the force "totally outrageous," has been struggling to provide minimal legal and humanitarian assistance for those detained and the families left behind. "We still don't know where everybody is. There's still people popping up here and there in different detention centers," says burly Fernando Rodriquez, a director of Local 7, during an interview in his small downtown office. "Things are still chaotic."

      Spurred by a lawsuit brought by Rodriquez's union, Denver Federal Judge John Kane found that a month after the raids, ICE had yet to disclose a comprehensive list of exactly who had been detained and where they were being held--or whether they had already been summarily deported. On January 12 he ordered ICE to disclose the whereabouts of all 262 Greeley detainees within ten days. "There are people in custody--there is an urgency to this," an angry Judge Kane told ICE lawyers. ICE finally complied with the court order in late January.

      The aggressiveness of the arrests and what followed have startled many. "I was amazed by the force used, by the heavy armament," says Democratic State Representative James Riesberg. "Amazed that so many didn't have the bond hearings they were owed, that so many were held without their location disclosed."

      When news of the raids broke, Rodriquez entered the plant but ICE officials prohibited him from getting personal information from the workers to pass on to their families. "ICE treated the workers like animals," he says. "Didn't let people eat or drink anything. Didn't let them go to the bathroom. Wouldn't let workers use phones to make arrangements for kids in school or at home." He adds, "This was something you think you might see on TV, but never did I imagine I would actually live through it."

      The Greeley Latino community, about 35 percent of the population, was not totally unprepared for the disaster. Political events of the previous year had spurred community organization and generated vibrant new leadership. As word of the raid flashed on local Spanish-language radio, hundreds of worried family members and protesters converged on the factory gates. Local police mobilized to keep the crowd at bay as their loved ones were handcuffed and loaded by ICE into waiting buses. The militarized sweep hit the community like a hurricane, says 33-year-old Sylvia Martinez, one of Greeley's most prominent new Latino activists. "It's frightening to see the power that the federal government has to blow through here and leave a shambles," she says as we eat lunch at one of the town's many Mexican restaurants. "This has been our Katrina, a man-made Katrina. There's no information, no accountability."

      As I speak with Martinez, we're joined by a number of relief volunteers, all of whom express something between red-hot anger and sullen resignation over the way, as they see it, they were abandoned by the government. As ICE carted away hundreds of workers, no federal or local official stayed behind to respond to questions, offer any information or deal with shattered families. "Just this morning I was with a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who came here two months ago with his mother. Now she's been taken away and is detained in Texas," says volunteer Laura Zuniga. "He doesn't speak English, he barely speaks Spanish, and he's been living with people who share his apartment. He's in shock. And there's no one, really no one, in charge."

      Swift donated $60,000 to the local United Way. But local activists say too much of the charity money is tied up in red tape. They also cite a lack of solidarity with the detained workers and their families. The local union, they say, hasn't been easy to deal with, and the national labor movement has shown little support.

      "The Swift raids are a troubling example of the way enforcement is being increased," says Ana Avendaño, associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO's immigrant worker program. "But, no, we didn't put out any statement on the raids, because [the food workers' union] didn't ask us for anything." That union has affiliated with the new Change to Win coalition--a breakaway from the AFL-CIO--and while both federations support comprehensive immigration reform they have not agreed on a common strategy. "We did feel we were left out there by ourselves in the first couple days," says a national official of the food workers' union. "But then the hotel workers and Change to Win came in with a strong statement of support."

      Elected Democratic officials--who now hold the Colorado Statehouse and a majority in the legislature--have not offered much significant support. "In Colorado," says Sylvia Martinez, "the politicians think it would be political suicide to support these workers." Just last summer, in a special session of the legislature, state Democrats tried to one-up then-GOP Governor Bill Owens in passing a slate of tough anti-immigrant legislation. "Our Democrats have been as unhelpful as the Republicans on the immigration issues," says Lindsey Hodel, field director for the Colorado Progressive Coalition. State Representative Riesberg, who convened a community forum on the Greeley raids in late January and who supports liberalized immigration reform, readily concedes that the prevailing political atmosphere makes it hard for Democrats to speak out. "The people of Colorado have made it clear they want the law to be enforced and are saying, 'What part of illegal don't you understand?'" he says. "But I'm concerned that some of those feelings are based on disinformation."

      The vacuum left by elected officials has been filled by new grassroots groups like Martinez's Latinos Unidos and their most reliable ally, Father Bernie Schmitz of Our Lady of Peace church. The 59-year-old bespectacled priest has stepped forward as an ardent advocate and defender of the immigrant workers who make up the bulk of his congregation. His church and its social network have become the command center of community relief and have so far raised more than $80,000 in contributions. Family members left behind by the raids can turn to the union and Padre Bernie, as he's called, to pay the utility bills. A food center funded by donations made through the church provides boxes of food for anyone who walks in the door.

      On the one-month anniversary of the raids, Father Schmitz organized an interfaith mass that drew dozens on a bitterly cold, snowy weeknight. "Let us pray for the migrant workers," he told those who attended. "Let us who benefit from their labor be grateful to them for what they provide and let us welcome them." In an interview after the mass, Father Schmitz confirms that while his church has been coordinating relief and tending to divided families, he has yet to be contacted by any official from ICE or any other federal agency. "Not that I'd necessarily want to speak to them," he says with a smile.

      At a cake and punch reception that evening in the church basement, I meet two middle-aged brothers from Guatemala's western countryside. They speak to me in a Spanish heavily accented with their indigenous Quiché. Another brother and the 22-year-old son of one of them were caught in the raid and now languish with sixty other Guatemalans in an El Paso detention center. Judge Kane ordered them returned to Colorado so they can be assisted by counsel and allowed to post bond, but instead they were held for weeks out of state. "We can't go back to Totonicapán," says Rosalio, referring to the Guatemalan department a lot of them come from. He's been working in Colorado for ten years but has no legal papers. "Back there it's full of organized crime, drug traffickers and injustice." He goes on, "And injustice here as well. It's been very difficult seeing our families taken away from work for no other crime than working." No one I speak to in Greeley--not Father Schmitz, not Sylvia Martinez, not even the Guatemalans themselves--can tell me of any local Guatemalan leaders, any activists or representatives. All anybody knows is that there are several hundred Guatemalans in town and now dozens of them in jail.

      Greeley was founded in 1870 as an experimental farming community organized by Nathan Meeker, the agricultural editor of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. By the 1920s the almost uniformly WASP community had grown the area into one of America's most important sugar beet providers. During World War II, German and Austrian POWs housed nearby were used to help tend to the profitable crops. Mexican braceros were also imported to take the place of local men drafted into the war. Cattle processing on a mass scale had come to town by the 1960s. And as the meatpacking industry went through its own labor revolution in the 1980s and '90s--breaking some traditional unions, automating and downgrading much of the workforce to less-skilled, lower-paid positions--the local plant became a magnet for Mexican and Central American migrants.

      Like many other mountain and Midwestern cities experiencing similar "browning," Greeley was until recently making an uneasy cultural transition. The more middle-class Anglos, some commuting to Denver to high-tech jobs, live on the manicured west side of town. The newer, darker immigrant population has mushroomed in the grittier eastern and northern neighborhoods. Jerry's Market, founded by German immigrants, soon added a taquería, while carnicerías and tortillerías appeared on the edge of downtown. The Greeley Tribune started publishing a weekly supplement in Spanish. Latinos still had no political representation, but racial conflict was submerged.

      Greeley and surrounding Weld County, however, have the misfortune of being a GOP stronghold in an increasingly Democratic state, and thus are vulnerable to hardball partisan manipulation. In the fall of 2005 the politically ambitious county DA, Ken Buck (a Republican married to the current state GOP vice chair), joined forces with Republican US Senator Wayne Allard and conservative US Representative Marilyn Musgrave in proposing that ICE open a local office in Greeley. The trio saw political opportunity in linking illegal immigration to rising crime rates and argued that bringing the immigration cops into Greeley would restore order. The tone for such racially tinged politicking had already been established by fellow Colorado US Representative Tom Tancredo, who built his political profile (and now intends to run for President) on a hard-line anti-immigration position.

      "Before the raids, I think we were all trying to move toward some sort of adjustment," says Sylvia Martinez. "But that all changed when Ken Buck made his move." The county commission, without public debate, approved Buck's proposal for a local ICE office. As the measure moved forward, the Latino community began to stir. Longtime Chicano activists and 1960s veterans Priscilla Falcon and Ricardo Romero put together some protest meetings, which soon swelled in size, frequency and intensity. New leaders, including Martinez, emerged.

      The Montana-born daughter of Tex-Mex farmworkers, Martinez had worked the fields in her youth and worked her way up to serving as an investigator for the local public defender. While she followed local politics, she didn't get involved until Buck's proposal for the ICE office. "I thought I would be a coward if I didn't stand up against it," she says. As many as 600 people opposed the proposal when it came before the City Council in late 2005. The council punted, and it was scrapped. Local Latino power had won its first victory.

      Once again, as the response to the December raids continues to build, that same sort of rising political energy is being felt. "All this stuff has made one great change," says Mexican-born radio announcer Elda Gamez, who became the community's electronic voice as she went live on the air during the day of the raid. "That change is unity. We were hit with a very low blow, but it served us well, and we've gotten support from people we've never heard from before." Father Schmitz is equally optimistic. "This has put a face on the issue," he says. "It's no longer abstract."

      What drives that optimism, even in the midst of the current turmoil, is a sense of inevitability. The local migrants, their families and advocates know they are riding the tide of a global economic and demographic wave more powerful than any fleeting enforcement or political gesture. "ICE might think it has changed the rules, but the real game here is supply and demand," says Mark Grey. "This industry and several others would collapse if you removed the immigrant workers. There is simply no going back. The only solution is comprehensive immigration reform which recognizes these realities."

      The Clinton Administration carried out similar immigration raids on the meatpacking industry between 1992 and 1997. But that didn't put a crimp in the northward flow of migrants. For millions of Mexicans, the march across the border is a forced exodus, as a couple from Guanajuato tell me when I sit with them in their cramped, drafty trailer in a mobile home park in Greeley. I'll call them Domingo and Emilia; both are in their early 30s. Domingo, an undocumented Swift worker since 2001, was picked up in the December raid, briefly jailed in El Paso and then dumped across the border into Juárez. After a quick trip to see his extended family in Guanajuato, he put together $2,000, paid a coyote and, along with seven other deported Swift workers from his hometown, dodged the Border Patrol and trudged across the Arizona desert back into the United States. He arrived in his Greeley trailer exactly twenty-two days after he'd been arrested.

      "I walked for three days and three nights. I was already diabetic, but now I think my leg is ruined," he says, massaging his shin. "But I would do it again tomorrow. And tomorrow and the next day," he says, nodding toward his 3-year-old son, who's running on the threadbare rug in Spiderman pajamas. The boy is a US citizen, as is his 1-year-old sister. Their 8-year-old sister, poring over her homework at the tiny dining table, is not.

      Domingo says that from the moment he was detained, he was determined to come back. He knows he can't return to Swift, where he made $12.75 an hour, but he also knows he can't take his family back to Mexico. "There is no work there," he says. The union paid the couple's gas and light bill and gave Emilia a food card worth $50. But no more aid is available, and the family is five days late on the $389 monthly trailer rent. Emilia says the only option to be discarded is returning to Mexico. "This country may not be our country, but it is the country of opportunity," she says, hugging her husband. "This isn't for us. We are Mexicans. This is for them. The children. They are the Americans."


      Feb. 7, 2007, 1:49AM
      Critics call detainees facility 'harmful' for immigrant families
      Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

      TAYLOR - A few hours after Mustafa Elmi slipped undetected across the Rio Grande in June, he was arrested by Border Patrol officers for entering the country illegally.

      Within two weeks, he was transported to a Central Texas facility wrapped in a high, razor-wire fence and overseen by an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Somali Muslim was fingerprinted, photographed and issued a uniform.

      Surveillance cameras eyed him. Guards timed his meals on wristwatches. He was counted, along with the others, three times a day. And if he stepped out of line, his mother was there to shush him into submission.

      Mustafa is 3 years old.

      For seven months, he was one of an estimated 200 children, mostly from countries other than Mexico, being held with their parents at a correctional center turned into a detention facility for immigrant families facing deportation.

      The facility in Taylor, overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and run by for-profit Corrections Corporation of America, is one of only two in the nation that detain families. The other, a former nursing home, is in Pennsylvania.

      ICE officials say the "state of the art" facility, which opened in May, is a humane alternative to severing immigrant families while parents wade through a swamp of bureaucracy, awaiting either asylum or deportation. The agency abandoned the old "catch and release" method after 9/11 because most immigrants weren't showing up for their hearings.

      "I do understand that when you approach the facility, it does look like a detention facility, but once inside, I think we've done a very good job of softening things to make it as family-friendly as we can," Gary Mead, assistant director for detention and removal operations in Washington, said Tuesday.

      But if humane treatment is the goal, human rights activists and other critics say the Taylor facility has failed.

      "It is wrong for the United States to be detaining immigrant families with young children in a prisonlike environment when they have alternatives," said Rebecca Bernhardt, of the American Civil Rights League of Texas. "I don't think most Americans are aware that we're doing this. If they knew what the conditions were like, if they could see the families, they would find this pretty outrageous."

      Resolution filed

      Bernhardt and other members of Texans United for Families are holding a news conference today in Austin to discuss a resolution filed by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin.

      "Children who have had no decisive role in their migration or flight should not be exposed to avoidable trauma," reads the resolution, which asks the Homeland Security Department to reconsider all alternatives to detaining asylum-seeking families.

      The resolution echoes orders a congressional committee made in 2005, advising children be detained only as a last resort, and only in "nonpenal, homelike environments."

      "Homelike" is not the scene depicted by former detainees, family members, attorneys and refugee advocates interviewed by the Houston Chronicle over the past month. They say that although the sign out front reads the T. Don Hutto "Residential" Center, it remains a prisonlike environment.
      Detainees say that families sleep in cold prison cells, with the slamming of jail gates and a siren of wailing children ringing in the halls. During the day, they share couches in a common area, reading or watching TV for hours on end.

      Parents say their children have gone weeks, even months, without feeling the sun on their faces. They're not allowed to run, jump or laugh too loudly indoors. They get an hour a day to play in a spare gym.

      While many of the guards are said to be warm and friendly with the children, presenting them with stickers and turns at the PlayStation, others are said to yell at misbehaving youngsters and even threaten to separate them from their mothers if they don't comply.

      "They don't treat people like humans, only animals," said one former detainee, who is seeking asylum from gang violence and corruption in Guatemala. He asked that his name not be used for fear it would hurt his asylum case. "The baby was crying a lot because he didn't see the sun. I thought prisons were for murderers. What did the baby do wrong?"

      For several months, Hutto children got one hour of school, but ICE officials say they recently increased that to four.

      Some detainees complain of rashes and sores, which they believe could be caused by dirty uniforms, detergent allergies or depression and stress. Some children reportedly suffer vomiting bouts from the food or weight loss from refusing to eat.

      Mustafa's mother, Bahjo Hosen, said her toddler won the hearts of many guards. But he soon became sick with diarrhea, fever and dizziness, she said. He would often vomit after meals and lost several pounds after he refused to eat the food and drank only milk.

      "I asked many times, 'My son doesn't eat, can you please give him vitamins?' They said they weren't allowed," said Bahjo.

      During lunch, Bahjo said guards would set their watches for 20 minutes or so as mothers and fathers urged their children to eat "rapido, rapido." Those at the end of the line often had only a few minutes and wouldn't finish, Bahjo said.

      But her son learned to stay still when he had to, especially during count three times a day, which could take hours.

      Detainees' allegations

      Detainees and their family members also told the Chronicle they were frequently denied contact visits with family, prompt medical attention, dietary accommodations and affordable phone access without cutoffs. If true, the allegations would all be violations of ICE's own detention standards.
      ICE officials at Hutto have not yet accommodated a request by the Chronicle to tour the facility, but they have promised an in-depth interview soon.
      An ICE fact sheet says the facility "operates in accordance with applicable ICE detention standards," meals are approved by certified dieticians and classes are taught by state-certified teachers.

      ICE officials in Washington defend the agency's use of the Hutto facility, saying it's the best way to protect and keep track of immigrant families and deter smugglers from using children to cross the border.

      Mead said he hadn't heard reports of children vomiting, but that, of the nearly 2,000 people who have passed through Hutto, there have been only 27 grievances. All involved food except six, which involved medical issues, clothing and laundry, and were resolved.

      Mead said ICE has added paint, carpet, toys and a playground. He also said the so-called uniforms are same-colored sweatpants and sweatshirts. "I absolutely reject the idea that they're in prison garb because they're not," he said.

      Believed in the system

      Mustafa and his mother, Bahjo, were released from Hutto last week.

      They arrived last June after fleeing death threats in their homeland. Bahjo said her brother had been murdered and the killers were afraid she'd turn them in. Fearing for her life, she left her husband and 7-year-old son in Mogadishu and boarded a flight to Mexico.

      She crossed the border in Mission and wandered lost for a few hours before she found a woman who gave her and Mustafa, then 2, some water. Bahjo asked the woman to call immigration authorities. The woman at first refused and told her to run, but Bahjo insisted she wanted to turn herself in to formally request asylum.

      She believed in the American system.

      "I used to think this was the best country in the world, that it would take care of kids, respect kids," she said. "I never thought I would be seven months inside Hutto."

      She was arrested and separated from her son for about two weeks while authorities kept her in bedless holding stations and asked her repeatedly if she was a terrorist.

      At Hutto, she lost herself in books. One day, her son caught her crying after a guard barged in on her in the restroom.

      Bahjo got pro bono legal aid from Political Asylum Project of Austin and her bail was set in August, hers at $2,000, her toddler's at $1,500. But she couldn't pay it, so they stayed in Hutto for five more months.

      When the judge granted her asylum last week, she said only three words: "Thank you, judge."

      Now at a home in Austin for refugee women and children, Mustafa plays with toys. His mother is thinking about her future, getting a job, getting the rest of her family here. And she's reflecting about Hutto: She doesn't blame the guards; they were doing their job, she says.
      But she's glad to see another side of the U.S.

      "Outside, I think the people are still the way I used to think about them. They are good people," she said.


      Detention Center Blues 
      News: Inside a former Texas prison where children—even infants—are held with their families on immigration charges.
      By Josh Harkinson
      February 6, 2007


      Inmate Faten Ibrahim was unlikely to escape. She lived at a compound built as a prison for Texas' worst criminals, within a double layer of razor wire. Her eight-by-eight- foot cell offered only a thin sliver of window, her toilet in an open corner left no cover for stashing break-out tools, and, at any rate, cracking the cell's thick steel door at night would have tripped an alarm. She certainly wasn't going to try bolting, especially since Ibrahim, who lived in the cell with her mother for three months, is five.

      Despite the minor threat that children such as Ibrahim pose on their own, the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has nonetheless begun detaining them along with their parents on illegal immigration charges. The T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, near Austin, is one of two locations in the country that hold entire families together as they await rulings on asylum and deportation cases. The Ibrahims, for example, were denied asylum in the U.S. in 2004 and told to return to their native Palestine, but were detained in T. Don Hutto after Palestinian authorities refused to grant them reentry. Spokesmen for the immigration department say the policy allows it to monitor parents who might otherwise flee prior to court hearings, while also keeping the parents and their children together. T. Don Hutto, which opened in May and now holds roughly 200 minors and their relatives, is the only detention center housed in a former prison, and the department says it has been extensively renovated into "a modern, state-of-the- art facility."

      Yet lawyers and human rights advocates question the ethics and legality of imprisoning children and say T. Don Hutto is, regardless, a bad place to start. "It's clearly not a setting that is appropriate for families," says Michelle Brané, an investigator with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children who toured the facility late last year. She says a typical prison routine still exists there: all children who are big enough must wear scrubs akin to prison uniforms, and there's little to occupy their time besides lounging in the "pod," the same communal space walled off by prison cells that was once used by criminal inmates; when not hanging out there, children receive a single hour of physical recreation each day and, at the time Brané visited, a single hour of schooling in the form of an all-ages English class (The classes were upped to four hours recently, and are expanding to the seven hours required in Texas public schools). Brané was not impressed by efforts to brighten the pod with carpet and a mural depicting an ocean scene: "It's definitely a penal environment."

      Five-year-old detainee Faten Ibrahim, who has large round eyes and wears her brown hair to her shoulders, suffered from nightmares and often sobbed uncontrollably at T. Don Hutto, according to a lawsuit that sought her family's release. In one instance she was "yelled at and threatened with 'punishment' for her failure to 'stand still'" during the prison's daily population count, the suit said. Her mother, Hanan--five months pregnant and likely suffering from morning sickness—complained of being too tired to join daily showers at 5:30 a.m., but was told that if she didn't she could be put in solitary confinement, according to the suit. The detention center was not staffed with a gynecologist, forcing Hanan to travel two hours away, bound in leg irons the entire time, to an outside clinic for prenatal care. Her absence from the pod so upset Faten and her siblings, aged eight and 14, that their mother stopped seeking medical treatment rather than leave them alone. The suit also claimed that the family of Palestinian political refugees was denied halal food at the prison cafeteria, prenatal vitamins for Hanan, and psychological counseling. "They were treated as inmates," said attorney Joshua Bardavid, "rather than a family being held for immigration reasons."

      The Ibrahims are far from the only residents to complain of ill treatment at T. Don Hutto, where operations are run by the for-profit prison staffing company Corrections Corp of America. Lawyers with the University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic, which has represented some 25 of the inmates, say several have reported weight loss and frequent vomiting, and parents have been unable to tend to sick children at night because rules ban them from leaving their cells after curfew. Other women have also complained of a lack of prenatal and mental health care. "I'm not a psychologist, but I go talk to these people, and they are just in shambles," said law fellow Frances Valdez. "I mean, they are losing their humanity." UT law professor and clinic director Barbara Hines believes imprisoning children is on its face unethical. "I've been doing this for thirty years," she said, "and I haven't been this upset about something in a very long time. It's just heartbreaking to go in there."

      Immigration department spokeswoman Nina Pruneda did not respond to inquiries about the T. Don Hutto facility by press time, but forwarded an email detailing the center's selling points, which include adult classes--in parenting, English, family counseling and arts & crafts--and facilities such as a library, gym, and playground. Human rights investigators said access to the gym and playground is limited to a total of one hour a day, during the allotted recreation time. Many of the children kill most of their time fighting over a Sony Playstation in the pod, Brané said. She said the center was most lacking in developmental toys for younger children, especially soft toys such as stuffed animals that would be important to children experiencing trauma.

      Some attorneys and human rights experts question whether incarcerating children in T. Don Hutto is actually legal. A 1993 Supreme Court decree to the immigration department requires it to do its best to detain children and their parents together, but the department must also hold the minors in the least restrictive setting possible. Human rights workers note that the nation's other family detention center, the Berks County Youth Center in Pennsylvania, offers a much more laid-back environment: it opened in 2001 in a former nursing home and doesn't require residents to wear prison scrubs or live in cells. "There's other settings that they could find besides a prison," attorney Bardavid said. Something "a heck of a lot less restrictive."

      Still, the government argues that family detention centers are generally the most humane way to enforce immigration laws effectively; in March, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he plans to open more of them. The move has come in part from concern that children are being used as foils to facilitate border smuggling. Under the department's controversial "catch and release" policy, families detained across the border were often released with "Notices to Appear" before federal immigration judges, instead of being kept in custody. Smugglers exploited the policy by smuggling groups of immigrants along with random children, then claiming the group was a family when caught.
      The American Civil Liberties Union contends that such problems could be addressed more cost-effectively and humanely, however, if the government provided better incentives for immigrants to show up for court dates. "There have been studies that show if you combine general monitoring with other social services you get a good return rate that is cheaper than detaining people," said Tom Jawetz, an attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project.

      The costs of holding immigrants while they await the outcome of trials can drag out; some families in the Berks facility have been detained up to two years, a fact that was most certainly on the minds of the Ibrahims when they appealed for pro-bono legal help. The family had been denied political asylum in the United States in 2004, but the Hamas-led Palestinian government wouldn't grant them permission to return. They were imprisoned in T. Don Hutto in November and left in limbo as attorneys sent letters around the world asking other countries to take them. In a highly unusual move last Friday, the Board of Immigration Appeals—reversing years of previous decisions—found that the Ibrahim family could be tortured by Hamas if they returned to the West Bank and reopened their case. On Saturday, Hanan and her children were released.

      To date, much about the family detention centers remains unknown. A request to visit T. Don Hutto submitted by the Austin-American Statesman has gone unfilled since December, though the first-ever press tour has finally been scheduled for the end of this week. The TV interviews, should they be allowed, might not be pretty; when Brané recently interviewed detainees there, nearly every person she spoke with cried. She will release a report of her findings later this month and doesn't believe that T. Don Hutto can ever be made into a place that would be suitable for minors. Before she left the facility that day, a child ran up and pressed a folded piece of paper into her hand. "Help us," the note said, "ask questions."

      Josh Harkinson is an investigative reporter at Mother Jones.


      Families Behind Bars

      U.S. immigration policy is putting kids in jail

      By Kari Lydersen
      February 6, 2007 In These Times e Newsletter

      Protesters stand outside the T. Hutto Residential Center during a candlelight vigil on Christmas Eve, 2006.
      Named after the co-founder of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the T. Don Hutto Correctional Center in Taylor, Texas, opened as a medium-security prison in 1997. Today, the federal government pays CCA, the nation's largest private prison company, $95 per person per day to house the detainees, who wear jail-type uniforms and live in cells.
      But they have not been charged with any crimes. In fact, nearly half of its 400 or so residents are children, including infants and toddlers.

      The inmates are immigrants or children of immigrants who are in deportation proceedings. Many of them are in the process of applying for political asylum, refugees from violence-plagued and impoverished countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Somalia and Palestine. (Since there are different procedures for Mexican immigrants, the facility houses no Mexicans.)

      In the past, most of them would have been free to work and attend school as their cases moved through immigration courts. "Prior to Hutto, they were releasing people into the community," says Nicole Porter, director of the Prison and Jail Accountability Project for the ACLU of Texas. "These are non-criminals and nonviolent individuals who have not committed any crime against the U.S. There are viable alternatives to requiring them to live in a prison setting and wear uniforms."

      But as a result of increasingly stringent immigration enforcement policies, today more than 22,000 undocumented immigrants are being detained, up from 6,785 in 1995, according to the Congressional Research Service.

      Normally, men and women are detained separately and minors, if they are detained at all, live in residential facilities with social services and schools. But under the auspices of "keeping families together," children and parents are incarcerated together at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, as it is now called, and at a smaller facility in Berks County, Penn. Attorneys for detainees say the children are only allowed one hour of schooling, in English, and one hour of recreation per day.

      "It's just a concentration camp by another name," says John Wheat Gibson, a Dallas attorney representing two Palestinian families in the facility.

      In addition, there have been reports of inadequate healthcare and nutrition.

      "The kids are getting sick from the food," says Frances Valdez, a fellow at the University of Texas Law School's Immigration Law Clinic. "It could be a psychological thing also. These are little kids, given only one hour of playtime a day, the rest of the time they're in their pods in a contained area. There are only a few people per cell so families are separated at night. There's a woman with two sons and two daughters; one of her sons was getting really sick at night but she couldn't go to him because he's in a different cell. One client was pregnant and we established there was virtually no prenatal care."

      When local staff for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) collected toys for the children at Christmas, Hutto administrators would not allow stuffed animals to be given to the children, according to LULAC national president Rosa Rosales.

      "That's what these children need—something warm to hug," she says. "And they won't even allow them that, why, I can't imagine. They say they're doing a favor by keeping families together, but this is ridiculous."

      A CCA spokesperson refers media to the San Antonio office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but that office did not return calls for this story.

      Immigrants have been housed at the facility since last summer, and public outrage and attention from human rights groups has grown in the past few months as more people have become aware of the situation. In mid-December, Jay J. Johnson-Castro, a 60-year-old resident of Del Rio, Texas, walked 35 miles from the Capitol to the detention center, joined by activists along the way and ending in a vigil at the center.

      "Everyone I have talked to about this is shocked that here on American soil we are treating helpless mothers and innocent children as prisoners," says Johnson-Castro, who had previously walked 205 miles along the border to protest the proposed border wall. "This flies in the face of everything we claim to represent internationally."

      A coalition of attorneys, community organizations and immigrants rights groups called Texans United for Families is working to close the facility. The University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic is considering a lawsuit challenging the incarceration of children.
      Valdez sees the center as a political statement by the government.

      "Our country likes to detain people," says Valdez. "I think it's backlash for the protests that happened in the spring—like, 'We're going to show you that you're not that powerful.' It's about power."

      Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post out of the Midwest bureau and just published a book, Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-US Immigration in the Global Age.

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