Toddlers in Detention


They wear jail uniforms and live in prison cells. They line up for a daily head count, get meals from the detention center cafeteria and one hour recreation time per day. Their only crime: they are children of immigrant families that seek asylum in the United States.

At the T. Don Hutto Residential Center north of Austin, TX, about 200 immigrants from impoverished countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Somalia and Palestine are held until their asylum or deportation cases are resolved--some for up to two years. And in the spirit of "family union," their children are locked up together with them.

In 2005, Congress directed the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold immigrant families in "non-penal, homelike environments." The Hutto Center, which used to be a prison facility, is anything but.

The small cells are just big enough to hold a bunk bed, a crib and a sink and toilet in an open corner--no chairs, no toys, no other furniture or pictures on the walls. Children over five years of age are kept in separate cells from their parents at night, making it impossible for the parents to care for a sick child after curfew.

Reportedly, detainees have been denied prenatal care and psychological counseling. All non-lawyer visits are "non-contact," through a Plexiglas window speaking over a phone. Separation and threats of separation have been used to ensure the compliance of the "inmates."

"Prior to Hutto, they were releasing people into the community," stated Nicole Porter, director of the Prison and Jail Accountability Project for the Texan ACLU. "These are non-criminals and nonviolent individuals who have not committed any crime against the U.S."

And John Wheat Gibson, a Dallas attorney who represents two Palestinian families at the center, called Hutto "just a concentration camp by another name."

Until very recently, when protests from human rights organizations flooded the center, the children--many of them infants and toddlers--were given only one hour of schooling and one hour of playtime each day. The rest of the time they would spend lounging in walled-in pods.

When local staff from the League of United Latin American Citizens collected toys for the children at Christmas, Hutto administrators didn't allow the stuffed animals to be given to the kids.

"It's clearly not a setting that is appropriate for families," commented Michelle Brané, an investigator with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, who toured the facility last year. Many of the children have nightmares and often sob uncontrollably, and nearly every person she talked to cried, Brané told Mother Jones in February.

"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.'"

What a disgrace for the so-called "land of the free."

[What do you think? Let us know at [email protected].]

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Posted 03-20-2007 2:44 PM by Shannara Johnson
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