WASHINGTON – Immigrant families, many with small children, are being kept in jail-like conditions in Texas and Pennsylvania, according to advocacy groups that say the Texas facility is inhumane and should be shut down.
In a report being released Thursday, the groups seek the immediate closure of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center north of Austin, the Texas capital. The center, which opened in May, used to be a jail.
The groups, Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, based their findings on their members' visits and interviews with detainees. At the Hutto site, a child secretly passed a visitor a note that read: "Help us and ask us questions," the report said. The groups reported that many of the detainees cried during interviews.
"What hits you the hardest in there is that it's a prison. In Hutto, it's a prison," said Michelle Brane, detention and asylum project director for Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.
The Pennsylvania center — the Berks County Shelter Care Facility — has about 84 beds and the Texas facility can house up to 512 people. The groups fear that government will expand detentions in similar facilities.
That facility, a former nursing home in Leesport, Pa., about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is "less jail-like," allowing families to go on field trips and having a better education system for children. But it also has problems, the groups said. It is part of a larger juvenile facility housing U.S. citizens charged with or convicted of crimes and detained juveniles.
The groups suggested that immigration officials release families who are not found to be a security risk, and said the federal government should consider less punitive alternatives to the detention centers, such as parole, electronic bracelets and shelters run by nonprofit groups.
"Unless there's some crime or some danger, families don't belong in detention," said Ralston H. Deffenbaugh, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "This whole idea of trying to throw kids and their parents in a penal-like situation is destructive of all the normal family relationships we take for granted."
The Homeland Security Department defended the centers as a workable solution to the problem of illegal immigrants being released, only to disappear while awaiting hearings. Also, they deter smugglers who endanger children, said Mark Raimondi, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the DHS division that oversees detention facilities.
"ICE's detention facilities maintain safe, secure and humane conditions and invest heavily in the welfare of the detained alien population," Raimondi said.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said last week that finding facilities for families is difficult, and "you have to do the best with what you've got. "
Other findings by the groups:
—At Hutto, cell door systems prevent parents from attending to children after "lights out." At the Berks shelter, children over 5 sleep separately from their parents.
—Until recently, Hutto children were given one hour of schooling a day, five days a week. That recently has been increased to four.
—Teachers at the Hutto center are not required to be licensed in Texas and the state's family welfare agency exempted Hutto from child care licensing requirements.
—Separation and threats of separation were used as disciplinary tools on adults and children.
The Department of Homeland Security opened the Hutto center after Congress criticized the agency's separation of migrant children from their parents.
The detention centers are operated without official regulations. Immigration and Customs Enforcement relies on custody rules designed for inmates.