Children jailed with parents

Detention Center houses families caught in the country illegally

February 11, 2007|By Nicole Gaouette and Miguel Bustillo | Nicole Gaouette and Miguel Bustillo,Los Angeles Times

TAYLOR, Texas -- Khadijah Bessuges is confined by metal gates and razor wire. She wears a uniform. She sleeps in an 8-by-15-foot cell, and stands by her cot four times a day when the guards count heads. And her favorite teddy bear was confiscated. But she has her father, Sebastien, who sleeps in the cell with her.

Khadijah is 9 years old.

She is one of 208 children held with their parents at the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center, the Department of Homeland Security's answer to the problem of families caught living in or entering the country illegally.

"It's not a good place for people," Khadijah said in a recent telephone interview. "People here get sad, and they don't want to be here. They want to be with their families."

Hutto, which opened in May, is a pillar of the administration's stepped-up effort to crack down on illegal border crossings and detain immigrants until their appeals can be heard. Proudly promoted by the Department of Homeland Security as a major achievement, it may be a model for future facilities.

But Hutto also illustrates the bind the administration faces as its pursuit of better border security collides with the reality that many of those in the country illegally are minors.

On Friday, most of Hutto's 383 inmates were children.

Immigrant advocates and human rights groups question why Khadijah and the others are being jailed for decisions their parents made. They charge that, in the Bush administration's rush to seal the southern border, it is trampling on laws that govern how to treat amnesty-seekers and on established practices for detaining minors.

"Children being in jail with their parents is what is morally and ethically wrong with this picture," said Frances Valdez, an Austin attorney with the University of Texas Immigration Clinic, who has clients at Hutto.

A former prison northeast of Austin, Hutto is run by a for-profit company with a controversial track record. And though the facility is meant for detention measured in days, many detainees are locked inside for months.

Attorneys say children there lose weight because of substandard food and suffer from untreated medical problems. Adults and children alike are given an hour of recreation a day and only rare chances to venture outdoors.

The adults at Hutto may be seeking asylum or have violated immigration laws, but they have not been charged with other crimes. Sebastien Bessuges, a Frenchman who married an American citizen last year, was arrested for overstaying his visa.

Immigrants make up the fastest-growing group of people incarcerated in the United States, according to the American Bar Association. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, holds more than 200,000 people over the course of a year at more than 300 sites.

For the administration and attorneys alike, family detention is largely uncharted territory. "Standards for family detention do not exist in the U.S.," said Michelle Brane of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. The ICE has asked Brane's group and others to discuss the creation of standards for family detention.

Congress did not have Hutto in mind when it directed the Department of Homeland Security in 2005 and 2006 to stop separating families and house them in nonpenal, homelike environments. It suggested methods such as electronic monitoring, which is being tested in eight cities. And advocates point to a San Diego family shelter run by nuns, as another possible model.

Concerns about Hutto are rising. A government commission issued a "report card" Thursday that fails the department for its treatment of asylum-seekers - many of whom are detained the longest at Hutto. A Texas legislator has introduced a resolution condemning the practice of jailing children, local groups have held vigils outside the center, the American Civil Liberties Union is considering a lawsuit and one Hispanic advocacy group has demanded an investigation.

"We want to know what's going on there," said Rosa Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "When you see the place, with its barbed wire, it's a prison. Putting immigrants in concentration camps should not be happening in the United States."

Homeland Security officials play down the complaints. "I don't think the criticisms are fair," said Gary Mead, assistant director for the ICE's Detention and Removal Operations. "This is run as a family shelter, it's not run as a jail. There is medical care; the meals are nutritious. Do people complain? They probably do; they're being detained."

In November 2005, the Department of Homeland Security announced the Secure Border Initiative, an effort to end illegal border crossings. Until then, non-Mexicans were usually released after being caught because there was no way to return them quickly and the department did not have enough beds to detain them.

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