The Least of These

Family Detention

How Did This Happen?

The Bush Administration reopened the T. Don Hutto prison facility in 2006 and began detaining immigrant children and families. Neither these children nor their parents are charged with any crime, and many of them are seeking asylum in the United States from persecution in their home countries.

In February 2007, the Women’s Refugee Commission and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service co-authored a report called LOCKING UP FAMILY VALUES: The Detention of Immigrant Families. The following information is drawn from that report:

The T. Don Hutto Center falls under the jurisdiction of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which calls the facility a “family residential center.” Yet, Hutto is a former Texas prison that is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the country’s largest private prison company (taxpayers pay $2.8 million per month to CCA, whose earnings surged as a result of the Hutto contract.

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Before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the majority of immigrant families detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) were released on their own recognizance, pending a hearing before an immigration judge. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Homeland Security Act split the responsibilities of the INS into three agencies and placed each agency under the authority of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Congress passed more restrictive immigration policies, such as certain provisions of the USA Patriot Act, and ICE—one of the agencies under DHS—increased enforcement of immigration policies, determined to end a practice they refer to as “catch and release.” As a result of these changes, ICE ceased to release many apprehended immigrant families, but due to a lack of capacity to deal with the increased detentions, the parents were often detained by ICE while the children were forcibly separated from their parents and sent to facilities operated by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), Division of Unaccompanied Children’s Services.

Congress discovered that DHS was separating immigrant families and acted to stop the practice. The House report accompanying the 2006 DHS appropriations bill stated:

The Committee is concerned about reports that children apprehended by DHS, even as young as nursing infants, are being separated from their parents and placed in shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) while their parents are in separate adult facilities. Children who are apprehended by DHS while in the company of their parents are not in fact `unaccompanied;’ and if their welfare is not at issue, they should not be placed in ORR custody. The Committee expects DHS to release families or use alternatives to detention such as the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program whenever possible. When detention of family units is necessary, the Committee directs DHS to use appropriate detention space to house them together.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff followed the directions from Congress by no longer separating immigrant families, but instead of following Congress’s expectations on how to deal with these families, Chertoff chose to detain immigrant families in the slightly modified T. Don Hutto Correctional Center.

The House report accompanying the 2007 DHS appropriations bill reiterated previous concerns:

The Committee remains concerned about reports that children apprehended by DHS, some as young as nursing infants, continue to be separated from their parents. The Committee encourages ICE to work with reputable non-profit organizations to consider allowing family units to participate in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, where appropriate, or, if detention is necessary, to house these families together in non-penal, homelike environments until the conclusion of their immigration proceedings.