By ANABELLE GARAY Associated Press Writer
© 2007 The Associated Press
DALLAS — A trial set to open Monday questions whether the federal government broke court-sanctioned rules by detaining immigrant children in a former central Texas prison while their families await decisions on immigration cases.
Testimony and evidence presented in Austin will scrutinize the T. Don Hutto family residential facility, a former prison in Taylor that houses families seeking asylum or awaiting deportation or other outcomes to their immigration cases.
Advocates contend conditions at Hutto don't comply with Flores v. Meese, a federal settlement agreement that calls for immigration authorities to house children in nonsecure, licensed programs such as shelters or foster homes.
Hutto houses some 400 illegal immigrants and asylum seekers — half of them children.
None of those at the facility have criminal records or violent histories. Yet current and former Hutto detainees allege they live under prison-like conditions.
Uniformed, handcuff-toting correctional officers called "counselors" threatened children with separating them from their families, who live in tiny cells with bunkbeds and a toilet, advocates say. Families living within Hutto's walls eat, shower and turn in on schedule and undergo a head count four times a day. After lights out, a system alerts staff in the control room if anyone leaves their cell. Advocates say children received inadequate classroom instruction, lost weight and had limited access to health care.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who oversee Hutto, deny the allegations and say they've made improvements such as removing concertina wire and expanding the time for residents to consult with their immigration attorneys. They point to Hutto's computer lab, playground and educational programs as offerings that soften the facility. Immigration officials have described Hutto as a residential, nonsecure environment that keeps families together.
"ICE is committed to the humane treatment of minors in our care and will continue to work with Williamson County, Texas. to ensure improvements are made as warranted," ICE has said previously.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin was critical of the Hutto facility, previously writing that federal officials should have spent more time researching how to properly care for children in detention. Hutto also hasn't been subjected to Texas standards for housing children, Sparks wrote.
Attorneys have spent weeks in mediation trying to come up with a settlement and avoid trial. The American Civil Liberties Union, who represents the children along with Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, declined to speak about the negotiations. ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said Sunday he had no information to release.
A trial also would examine the ICE policy of expedited removal, in which immigrants are detained at Hutto or other facilities while they are processed for deportation. After opening in May 2006, Hutto began housing families who are candidates for expedited removal — an immigration policy that came after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Officials say the facility is meant to end the "catch and release" practice that in the past permitted families in the United States illegally to remain free while awaiting a court hearing. Many never showed up in court; some borrowed other people's children and posed as families to avoid detention, ICE officials say.