When a coalition of community activists gathers in Taylor, Texas, this weekend, they’ll trot alongside a barbed-wire fence (we’re told the inner barricades have come down) and descend upon the controversial T. Don Hutto Residential Center, where a teddy bear has been placed on every bed and children’s artwork lines the halls.
As they inch the bullhorns and signs reading “Texas shame” and “Children need sunshine too” closer to the center, the PR-scrubbed scene will be marred by something the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Corrections Corporation of America, and Williamson County doesn’t want: hundreds of protesters shouting for the release of immigrant children and undocumented detainees.
The center — an immigrant-detention facility funded by Homeland Security, operated by privately owned CCA, and administered by the county — made news when it was criticized for incarcerating detainees in conditions that, until recently, were abysmal. The 470-bed detention center is one of two in the country that confine families on immigration violations while they await disposition of their cases.
Upon its opening in May 2006, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff proclaimed the center a prototype, with many more such facilities to come. Since then, disturbing incidents have come to light, including the sexual assault of a female detainee by a prison guard, and the rebuff of a U.N. inspector after he was promised permission to survey the center.
Hutto is a renovated medium-security prison surrounded by razor-wire-topped walls. Children were confined to 8-by-12-foot cells for 12 hours a day, forced to wear unsanitary uniforms, awakened in the middle of the night for routine head counts, and only allowed a short time to finish meals, often prepared with out of date food, constituting an ongoing, blatant disregard for basic civil rights, according to American Civil Liberties Union.
The detainees’ treatment reportedly improved somewhat following a December 2006 protest walk and vigil by a coalition of Central Texas organizations spearheaded by social-justice activist Jay Johnson-Castro. (He has since been walking from Arizona to California to protest the border wall.) Continuous agitation and attention from citizens, human-rights organizations, and the media culminated in a March 2007 lawsuit, filed in federal court by the ACLU against Chertoff and ICE.
That suit resulted in an August 2007 settlement mandating improved conditions for Hutto’s captives, including expanded educational programming, an end to head counts, and more nutritional food. Razor wire has started to come down; cell doors have been repainted with bright colors.
Last spring the ICE hosted a media open house (albeit, without direct media access to the residents) in response to the growing controversy, but a year later, criticism of and opposition to the facility has only gained momentum at federal, state, and local levels.
In an April 22 letter to the House of Representatives, more than 80 organizations objected to H.R. 4088, the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement Act, which explicitly calls for the creation of family-detention facilities for undocumented workers and their children. Initiated by First Focus, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization, the letter has been signed by the National Council of La Raza, the National Education Association, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the Episcopal Church among others.
Local groups, including the Texas Indigenous Council, feel more action is needed here at home, too. They’ve joined forces with the Texas Civil Rights Project to repeal a 47-year-old law that forbids protesting in nearby Georgetown, a bigger and more viable venue to fight for the cause than the small, isolated Texas town of Taylor.
“These are small steps,” said Antonio Diaz, organizer of the César E. Chávez March for Justice. “They’re not huge, but they are historical.” •
Freedom Walk & Protest Vigil
Noon-4pm, May 24
T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center
1001 Welch St.
On May 24, the César E. Chávez March for Justice, TIC,
Madras, Amnesty International, LULAC, Code Pink, T5, Dialog Makers, Houston Sin Fronteras, and others are organizing a vigil and protest at the T. Don Hutto facility in Taylor. San Antonio mainstays James Perez y Karnaval will perform their Latin brand of rock, while socialist hip-hop/punk trio Karma, razteca musical warriors Arma Musical, roots-music players Xemilla, and hip-hop pride mongers Iztli sing in protest. For more information, contact Jina Gaytan (210) 396-9805 or Antonio Diaz (210) 396-9805.