The New York Times released an article recently stating that the Obama administration plans to change the way the United States detains immigration violators. The Obama administration does not want to continue holding nonviolent immigration violators in jail and prison cells. Details on transforming it into a “truly civil detention system” have not been confirmed. One of the first steps, such as reviewing the federal government’s contracts with over 350 local jails and private prisons, can take months or years to complete.
One effort that has been agreed to act on immediately: closing the T. Don Hutto Residential Center near Austin, Texas that detains immigrant families each year. Hutto was opened in 2006 under a 2.8 million-a-month federal contract under the Bush administration. This was during an era where harsh policies and tough approaches were always a part of immigration enforcement.
The 512- bed Hutto facility received attention and a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union for putting young children “behind razor wire.” Before the ACLU lawsuit was settled in 2007, children testified that they were mainly confined to family cells; there were incidents of children under 10 years old staying as long as a year, with only one hour of schooling a day. There were times when guards would threaten to separate the children from their parents in order to assert their power. Such liberties as wearing pajamas at night or taking crayons into family cells were not given until after the settlement.
Dora Schriro is a special adviser to Janet Napolitoano, the secretary of homeland security. Schrior will become the director of the new Office of Detention Policy and Planning and assisted by two experts on detention management and medical care. Their focus will be on detention polices, practices, and detainee health care. Mr. Morton, a career prosecutor, will be working with the Office of Detention Oversight and “making its agents responsible for investigating detainee grievances as well as conducting routine and random checks”.
“Detention is aimed at those who pose a serious risk of flight or danger to the community,” says Mr. Morton, and although several of these families that are currently in Hutto are not associated with violent crimes, the only other option that has been proposed is moving them from one detention center in Texas to another detention center in Pennsylvania. Hopefully the Obama administration’s “civil detention system” is implemented quickly, especially for the sake of the families who are being falsely accused of immigration violation and treated like criminals.
By Leticia Contreras, Community Mobilization Intern