Deal will bring reforms to immigrant detention site: The detention of children in Central Texas would be ‘less penal’
By SUSAN CARROLL, Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Attorneys for immigrant children at a Central Texas detention center have reached a settlement agreement with the government that would create changes both big and small — from increasing oversight to letting youngsters bring pencils and paper to their cells.
Attorneys with the Department of Homeland Security and the American Civil Liberties Union reached an agreement Sunday but need final approval from a judge. The case was scheduled to go to trial on Monday before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin.
The agreement involves a range of reforms at the center in Taylor, which is the focus of international controversy over reports that families were kept in prisonlike conditions. Attorneys for the ACLU and co-counsel filed 10 lawsuits on behalf of immigrant children in March in U.S. District Court, stating that detainees were subject to psychological abuse from guards, received poor medical care and inadequate nutrition.
The Texas center — one of only two in the nation that house immigrant families facing deportation — is privately run by the Corrections Corporation of America and was once a medium-security prison.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials denied that immigrant families were treated below acceptable standards, according to the settlement agreement. But ICE agreed to a range of conditions in the proposed settlement — including increasing scrutiny of the length of time families are detained and allowing for independent monitoring by the judge assigned to mediate the case, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew W. Austin.
Other concessions allowed children to have curtains around toilets and go on field trips with their parents’ permission.
ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda would not answer questions about the settlement on Monday, but she released a statement that defended conditions at Hutto and welcomed the outside monitoring.
The judge’s participation “will help improve communication about the facility and end any misconceptions and allegations falsely made about the Hutto facility,” the ICE statement said.
Pruneda also said Monday afternoon that ICE could not provide the number of detainees currently in Hutto.
Lisa Graybill, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the center has made progress since the ACLU first sued in March, including changing the menu, allowing limited, supervised visitation and providing more hours of schooling.
Children are no longer required to wear prison uniforms and are allowed to spend more time outdoors.
ACLU attorneys have argued that conditions at Hutto don’t comply with Flores v. Meese, an earlier federal settlement agreement that calls for immigration authorities to house children in the least restrictive environment possible, such as shelters or foster homes.
In April, Sparks ruled that the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit were “highly likely” to prevail in arguments that immigration officials had violated legal standards for their treatment. The judge called the children’s detention in “substandard conditions” an “urgent problem.”
Under the terms of the settlement, children 12 and older would be able to move freely about the center. Immigration officials also would eliminate periodic head counts, instead having immigrants check in on their own, the agreement states.
Only families designated for “expedited removal” are to be housed at Hutto, barring a shortage of bed space at other facilities, according to the agreement.
Plaintiffs all released
Immigrants placed into expedited removal typically have a final order of deportation and are moved through the system relatively quickly. More complex cases, such as asylum claims, take months — or sometimes years — to resolve.
The settlement proposal also requires that ICE provide a full-time pediatrician and immunize children in the center. The settlement proposal is a “recognition that the environment needs to be more homelike and less penal,” Graybill said. “It has resulted in significant changes for kids who have to spend time at Hutto.”
ICE officials opened the Hutto facility in May 2006 as part of a push to end the controversial “catch-and-release” policy. Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most families caught by immigration authorities were released because of a shortage of space in detention centers. Immigration officials reported that many of the released families did not show up for scheduled court hearings.
Since the lawsuits were filed last spring and later consolidated, all of the 26 plaintiffs have been released, according to the ACLU.