The administrators for the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a privately run prison in Texas where some immigrant parents and children are detained after entering the country illegally, never let Margaret Talbot tour the facility.
Neither did they grant a request by Jorge Bustamante, a sociologist and former Nobel Peace Prize nominee--and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants--to visit the facility in Taylor, Texas, last May.
But by interviewing immigrant parents and children who were detained in the past at Hutto and got out, Ms. Talbot has pieced together a picture of a facility that is, in fact, a prison and a really bad place for children. See “The Lost Children” in the March 3 issue of the New Yorker.
Here’s an excerpt: “Children were regularly woken up at night by guards shining lights into their cells. They were roused each morning at five-thirty. Kids were not allowed to have stuffed animals, crayons, pencils, or pens in their cells.”
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court against the federal government in March 2007 regarding the conditions at the center. The organization settled with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August.
One stipulation of the settlement agreement was that children at the facility would receive at least five hours of education per day based on Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards. Before the lawsuit had been settled, the administrators of Hutto had already made some changes, including increasing the amount of time for education to four hours per day from one hour, and eventually to seven hours a day, according to the New Yorker article.
Because Ms. Talbot didn’t get to visit the facility, it’s hard to know if the kind of incidents described by families whom she interviewed, which happened before the settlement, are still occurring.
Ms. Talbot asks some hard-hitting questions at the end of her piece, which I think Americans need to take seriously.
“When we place families in a facility like Hutto, are we punishing them for coming to America? Or are we just keeping them somewhere safe, so that they don’t get separated or disappear while we figure out what to do with them? Or, rather, is our policy to try somehow to combine the practical and the punitive? After all, if the goal was simply to keep track of immigrants, in most cases an electronic monitoring bracelet would suffice. And if the goal was simply to keep families together, we could surely house them in something other than a former prison...”
I think these questions can be applied as well to the government’s practice of detaining unaccompanied minors who have been picked up by immigration authorities. I wrote about an immigration detention center for such children in Miami in November 2006.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.