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Seeking Asylum: Law faculty, students at Immigration Clinic work to free detained families at controversial facility

Amid the idyllic Americana setting in a small Texas town is a place where young children lived surrounded by razor wire fence with the threat of separation from their parents. They and their families—none of whom were charged with crimes—had been kept in prison cells with limited access to medical care, education and even food. You likely wouldn’t have found the typical colorful drawings found in most homes with children, because they weren’t allowed to have even paper and crayons in their cells.

While Taylor, Texas, advertises itself as a “a vibrant, growing community of…friendly people living the good life,” something it doesn’t promote is the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, a former medium security prison that now is a detention center for immigrant families, including children, awaiting decisions about asylum in the U.S. or other immigration-related issues.

When Barbara Hines, director of the School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, first visited the facility in fall 2006, she discovered life has been anything but idyllic for the children detained there. The facility was surrounded by fences topped with razor wire. No direct sunlight entered the building. During detentions that lasted as long as a year, the children were kept in cells at least 12 hours a day, required to wear prison uniforms, given 20 minutes to eat their meals (with no additional nutrition available beyond what was served at mealtimes), and provided about one hour a day of education.

Hines, who has worked on immigration law issues for three decades, said she was stunned by the conditions she encountered at Hutto, run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a for-profit company. CCA is the fifth-largest operator of corrections facilities in the nation—behind only the federal government’s prison system and those of three states.

“I have seen a lot in many years of doing immigration law that disturbed me,” she said, “but this is the most disturbed I’ve been about any immigration policy in a really long time. I just couldn’t believe that there were children in prison uniforms behind barbed wire. Imprisoning families who have fled their home countries under fear of persecution from their own governments, and detaining them in jail-like conditions, was an indescribable trauma for many of the children.”

Elise Harriger, a third-year law student in the Immigration Clinic who also visited Hutto to work on cases there, was similarly distressed by what she saw.

“It was a prison, plain and simple. Children wore prison uniforms and lived in cells with narrow slits for windows. I had to keep reminding myself that I really was in the United States. It seemed so terribly wrong,” Harriger recalled.

According to advocates, there was little or no privacy in bathrooms or showers at Hutto. Many of the children said that they were threatened with being separated from their parents if they did not respond immediately to the orders of their uniformed guards. There was no pediatrician onsite, and many children’s medical conditions worsened while they were in custody. Advocates say the children had almost no toys or age-appropriate books and were not allowed to keep writing implements and paper in their cells. In many cases, the children’s mental health deteriorated substantially.
None of the detainees was charged with crimes, and none had violent histories. Among them were families from Lithuania, Romania, Iraq, Somalia and several Latin American countries.

Calls for assistance

The Hutto facility opened in May 2006. Frances Valdez, a 2005 Law School graduate, who was then the clinic’s Clinical Fellow, began receiving calls for assistance in August. Because the detainees have no right to a publicly funded lawyer, the clinic fields many such requests—it is one of very few organizations with expertise in this area that provides free legal services.

“The first call I got was from a frantic Nicaraguan woman in the Valley saying her daughter and her daughter’s baby were being held at a prison in Taylor,” Valdez recalled. “That was when we first learned families were being detained at Hutto.”

As clinic students began meeting with Hutto detainees to help them with their asylum claims and other cases, Valdez also worked to raise public awareness of those detainees’ circumstances. At an Austin meeting convened by the national organization Detention Watch Network to discuss general detention issues, she asked those in attendance to focus on Hutto, and the group Texans United for Families was formed as a result. In December 2006, Valdez and others organized a vigil at Hutto, and that event ignited media attention.

“Suddenly we were receiving calls from everywhere,” Valdez said, “not just Texas media but national media, too.”

With 12 students, the Immigration Clinic could handle only a relatively small number of cases for individual Hutto detainees.

“We were overwhelmed,” Hines said. “We realized that we were going to need more help.”

Other organizations providing individual services, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, were also finding their resources barely sufficient to meet the needs of individuals there.

The litigation

In March of this year, the Immigration Clinic, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the international law firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, filed lawsuits on behalf of 26 children detained at Hutto against Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and six officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The lawsuits charged that the children were being imprisoned under inhumane conditions, and in contravention of a 1997 federal settlement agreement, Flores v. Meese, that requires immigration authorities to house children in the least restrictive conditions possible and to meet certain basic standards in their care and treatment. All 12 students from the Immigration Clinic participated in developing the case.

In an April ruling consolidating the 26 cases into one trial, the District Court Judge hearing the case—1963 Law School graduate Sam Sparks—warned the defendants that they faced an uphill struggle to justify their actions, writing: “The Court finds it inexplicable that defendants have spent untold amounts of time, effort, and taxpayer dollars to establish the Hutto family detention program, knowing all the while that Flores is still in effect.”

In an apparent response to the suit, ICE accelerated the process of issuing bonds for asylum seekers who passed interviews regarding their credible fear of harm or repression if they returned to their native countries. Those bonds freed some of the detainees and their children from the facility.

Other changes also began taking place at Hutto after the suit was filed, changes that former clinic student Elizabeth Wagoner, a 2007 Law School graduate, described as nearly farcical.

“It would have been funny if it weren’t so tragic,” Wagoner recounted. “For example, they painted a big mural on one wall, with castles and happy dragons and blue skies and puffy clouds, and it said Bienvenidos a Hutto—Welcome to Hutto—as though this would bring some sort of pleasure to children who were, in my view, being cruelly mistreated and many of whose parents were experiencing serious distress as a result of their penal confinement and the confinement of their children.”

The settlement

As the trial was about to begin in August, a settlement was reached. All 26 of the plaintiff children had been released before the trial date—six of them just days earlier. They are still in the U.S., now living with family members who are U.S. citizens and/or legal permanent residents while their asylum claims are being pursued.

The defendants agreed to ensure that living conditions at Hutto—where, as of the writing of this article, about 200 people are still detained—met appropriate standards. U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin, a 1985 Law School graduate, was assigned to monitor those conditions, pursuant to a 127-item checklist included in the settlement.

“In my opinion, Hutto should be shut down,” Valdez said. “But at least now the children can wear regular clothes instead of prison uniforms, they can go outside, and there are no more clanging iron cellblock gates.”

Hines and her students still provide legal services to individuals detained at Hutto. Even with the settlement in place and changes beginning to occur, Hines said that it is still very difficult to go there and see families held in such confinement.
“The conditions at Hutto are not just distressing,” she said. “They are fundamentally in conflict with what Congress intended as a proper way to deal with detained families.”

The policy

Before 2001, apprehended immigrant families (a category that includes asylum seekers, who are placed under arrest and considered to be in the U.S. illegally until their status is determined) typically were released with an assigned date to appear in court. After 2001, in an environment that placed heightened emphasis on security, government policy called for the detention of more apprehended immigrants, including those accompanied by children, to provide a greater likelihood that they would appear for their court dates.

The first facility to house detained immigrant families was established in a former nursing home in Berks County, Pa., in 2001. With about 84 beds, it is run by the county. The much larger Hutto is the only other facility used to detain families.

In a joint report published earlier this year, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, while declaring “the system of family detention is overwhelmingly inappropriate for families,” observed that children at the Berks County institution were generally treated more humanely than those held at Hutto.

The House committee overseeing the budget for the Department of Homeland Security has regularly described detention of families as a last resort. In 2005 it wrote: “The Committee expects DHS to release families or use alternatives to detention such as the Intensive Supervised [sic] Appearance Program whenever possible. When detention of family units is necessary, the committee directs DHS to use appropriate detention space to house them together.” In the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, under way in nine American cities, immigrants are generally equipped with electronic bracelets and supervised by caseworkers to ensure compliance with the terms of their release.

In 2006 the committee reiterated its expectation that “if detention is necessary,” DHS should “house these families together in non-penal, homelike environments until the conclusion of their immigration proceedings.”

Hines and her students take pride in the services they provide to individual Hutto detainees, and in their substantial part in obtaining the settlement that is changing the conditions of detention there. But many feel strongly that detention of families is an inappropriate policy and that even if detention must be used, the Hutto facility is the wrong place to do it.

“I learned some important lessons about the law through this experience,” said Wagoner, in words that are echoed by the other clinic students. “First, I got to see how a great practitioner like Professor Hines can make the law work quickly to address a big problem. And second, we all saw that there are larger matters of policy that can only be addressed through advocacy and activism beyond litigation. I know that for me, and I think for all of us, those are lessons that will make us better and more effective attorneys no matter what kind of legal practice we pursue in the long run.”

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