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by Megan McKenna

DHS Holding Tens of Thousands of Immigrants in Jails While Awaiting Residence Hearings

(PNS) WASHINGTON -- The recent string of raids to net and jail the undocumented is part of a new strategy that targets immigrant families, including asylum-seekers, in the name of national security. The separation of parents from their children that has resulted in many cases has led to a nationwide outcry and a recognition that we need to re-examine how we treat immigrants in detention, particularly families.

The Department of Homeland Security’s replacement of the so-called “catch and release” policy with “catch and return” has resulted in a significant rise in the number of families detained, even those with very young children, for indefinite periods of time, in some cases in prison-like conditions.

When the Department of Homeland Security opened the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, in May 2006, it proudly proclaimed the former prison as a new model for the increased detention of immigrant families. DHS claimed the new facility was “specially equipped to meet family needs” and would put an end to the separation of families in detention, which advocates had decried for years.

They didn’t quite get it right. When the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service visited Hutto in December, we found that the families held there were treated like criminals.

They lived in cells, complete with open-air toilets, had no privacy, had highly restricted mobility and only an hour of recreation per day, had poor medical care and no prenatal care, and were subject to questionable disciplinary tactics, including threats of separation of children from their parents.

Children had no soft toys and inappropriately received only an hour of education a day -- high school-age children were being taught when a child should be toilet trained. (We’ve been told by DHS that education has since increased to 7 hours a day, but the quality is still unclear).

Perhaps the clearest indication of how bad things were at Hutto was when a child secretly slipped a note that said, “Help us and ask us questions,” into the hand of an outside visitor.

Conditions at the other DHS family detention facility, in Berks Country, Pennsylvania, are somewhat better -- education is more appropriate and families are not living in prison cells, for example -- but perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility in Leesport, Penn, was the length of stay of some families. One family we met, a mother and her three daughters ages 7, 9 and 14, had been detained for more than 2 years.

Detention clearly takes a heavy toll on families. Every mother interviewed at both facilities cried. Many of the children were sad and depressed. Some feared separation from their parents, a common threat used to ensure that children behaved according to facility rules.

How is it that a nation that prides itself on “family values” has resorted to putting growing numbers of families in an environment that erodes, rather than preserves, family values? Many of the families in detention have already suffered deeply in the journey to the United States and likely in the country from which they fled. They do not deserve to be treated as criminals, particularly the children.

There is no reason to detain families who pose no security risk to the United States. Alternatives to detention exist and should be used more widely. Pilot programs are in place nationwide for adults in immigration proceedings. They should be used for families.

Pre-hearing release programs should be developed. Supervised release and shelter care run by nonprofit social service agencies with expertise in meeting the needs of refugee families should be used.

ICE has piloted one such program since 2004. The “Intensive Supervised Appearance Program” (ISAP) has been successful in enforcing our immigration laws and ensuring appearances in court while also being more cost efficient and humane than traditional detention based on a criminal model.

The Department of Homeland Security has reported a 94 percent appearance rate overall and appearance rates as high as 98 percent in some locations. In this program, specialists are assigned to a limited caseload of detainees and are responsible for monitoring them by using tools such as electronic monitoring, home visits, work visits and reports by telephone.

Until these desperately needed alternatives are in place, the T. Don Hutto facility must be shut down and Berks transformed into a less restrictive facility. Standards should be put in place as soon as possible -- none currently exist -- and monitoring of the facilities must become routine. We must do this for the sake of children like 9-year-old “Nelly,” an asylum-seeker from Honduras, who sleeps in the bottom bunk of her jail cell at Hutto with her 3-year-old sister and mother, because she is afraid. As Nelly says, “If you are not good, they will take you away from your mom.”

What sort of family value is this?

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Albion Monitor   April 19, 2007   (

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