Beyond Hutto: “Pushing Back” Against Immigrant Detention Centers

In response to mounting criticism, the Obama administration announced in August that the United States would begin reforming the government’s immigrant detention system. Although details are sketchy and changes will be introduced slowly, one immediate shift was the announcement that Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will no longer send immigrant families to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas.

Playground and barbed wire
—photo from

That the Administration mentioned Hutto specifically is not surprising. News media, religious groups, and progressive activists have criticized the facility for locking up children ever since Hutto began detaining families in May 2006. In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against ICE on behalf of families detained at Hutto, which led to improved conditions. After investigating the prison in June 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced that, even though conditions had improved since the ACLU lawsuit, the continued detention of asylum seekers and their children at Hutto violated principles of international law.

In addition to the ACLU and the IACHR, Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families have helped lead the charge against the facility. Bob Libal is the Texas coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, a southern-based social justice organization taking on private prisons. Lauren Martin is a member of Texans United for Families, an Austin-based coalition working to end family detention.

TEDROW: Talk about the history of the T. Don Hutto facility.

LIBAL: Basically, Hutto was a medium-security prison that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) took over in the late 1990s. It was a failing private prison that couldn’t retain much of a population base. CCA had previously contracted with U.S. Marshals and the ICE, but both contracts had fallen through. Then, in the spring of 2006, they reopened it with the announcement that they were going to be detaining immigrant families, including small children, for ICE.

In August, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. government would no longer be holding immigrant families at facilities such as Hutto. Why?

LIBAL: I think they made this decision because of political pressure, because organizers had made Hutto a lightning rod of controversy. The decision basically takes family detention policy back to pre-9/11 levels. Before the announcement, there were two family detention centers in the country: Hutto and the Berks County Detention Center in Pennsylvania, which has 80 beds. Last year, ICE proposed three new family detention centers around the country.

The announcement means that they will be either transferring families to Berks or releasing them on alternatives-to-detention programs. Berks is full right now: it’s at capacity, so in reality they’re releasing families into alternatives-to-detention programs or releasing them with notices to appear at their immigration hearings. They also are taking the new family detention centers off the table. I think it’s a pretty substantial victory. The New York Times described it as the first major departure on immigration policy from the Bush administration.

Is this going back to the idea of “catch and release”?

Libal: I’ve heard John Morten, who is the Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security, say, “No, we’re not returning to that.” But I think the people who are getting out of Hutto are getting out on notices to appear. I think it’s still unclear how this sort of processing is going to take place. Say you’re apprehended or apply for asylum on the border. What happens to you? Are you then released into an alternatives-to-detention program or are you sent to Berks and then released? We don’t know that yet. What it does mean is that, at any one time, there are a lot fewer families in detention.

Martin: I think it’s important to differentiate, too, between “catch and release,” which is really vague and could mean anything, and the bond and parole procedures that have been in place and are available to many immigrant detainees. That’s often what families are released on. There is some degree of supervision and they also pay quite a bit of money to participate in those programs. So “release” is misleading. Just because they’re not in Hutto, there are still other forms of institutional supervision. Alternatives-to-detention programs have a wide range of forms of supervision. The justification for opening Hutto was that they needed to move from “catch and release” to “catch and return.” There’s a presumption of illegality—that all these families would be released into the population and abscond.

Hutto has not been shut down, though. It’s been converted into a detention center for women, correct?

Martin: Yes. After the legal settlement every 30 days they have to review whether a specific family qualifies to be released on bond or parole. Once they started doing that, they released families a lot faster, which made the population drop. So they filled Hutto with immigrant women. As families are released, it will be filled completely with immigrant women without children.

Will Grassroots Leadership continue to focus on Hutto?

Martin: Texans United for Families is trying to figure out what the announcement really means, so we’ve been staying in close contact with Washington, DC-based advocates who have closer relationships with ICE, and the attorneys in the lawsuit who are actually representing folks at Hutto, to see what’s going on there and to make sure that everything continues to go well. The next project is to figure out how to use the energy from the victory—because it is still a victory, even if it’s a partial one.

Do you think there’s a climate for expanding this message to include more than families? To target detention itself?

Protesters at Hutto on June 20, 2009, World Refugee Day—photo by Jeff Zavala

Martin: I think so. There have been a lot of really successful campaigns in the United States around other family-related issues, not necessarily family detention. In New York, Families for Freedom is a close ally of ours and they’ve been organizing around the Child Citizen Protection Act, which basically says if someone has a citizen child, then the immigration judge has some discretion to not deport the parents. Right now, in many situations, judges don’t get to say, “This person clearly has family ties, they have a few kids who need them, so it would be better not to deport this person.”

Family unity is supposed to be the backbone of our immigration system. However heteronormative a family it may be, it is still what both conservatives and liberals think of as the touchstone of the immigration system. So that’s a really powerful discourse that we can use to expand to other injustices in the immigration system.

Libal: We will certainly continue to draw attention to the broader issues of immigrant detention and private prisons. I believe that we will continue to draw attention to Hutto, but it is important to think strategically about how we can best push back on that system.

One of the lessons of the Hutto campaign is you can target a facility to make it very infamous, which the movement did to Hutto, but at the same time, it was drawing attention to a broader policy, which is family detention. I think we’ve pushed back family detention policy. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that again by targeting a facility and pushing back on mandatory detention, secure communities, or any of these other really horrendous programs that lead to the incarceration of immigrants on a mass scale.




DC Tedrow edits the New Texas Radical.