Humpday Hall of Shame: Forgetting the horrors of T. Don Hutto, Obama plots massive increase in immigrant family detention

President Barack Obama will be in Texas this week for a fundraising event in Austin.  He will also be meeting with Texas Governor Rick Perry to discuss the government’s response to an increase in the number of Central American children and families coming to the Texas-Mexico border to seek asylum.  

While many communities in Texas have responded by opening their arms to provide shelter to unaccompanied children, the Obama administration has requested an additional $3.7 billion in money that would mostly be spent on border enforcement, detention, and deportation.  This comes despite the fact that federal spending on immigration enforcement already surpasses all other federal law enforcement activities combined.  

Included in the supplemental spending request is $897 million to detain and deport refugee families.  Reports have emerged from D.C. that the administration may be considering more than 6,000 new family detention beds, up from only 80 beds currently detaining families.   The administration has already begun sending asylum-seeking refugee families to be housed at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artisia, New Mexico.   

Apparently, the administration has forgotten the shameful history of family detention in the United States that spans from the Japanese internment to the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.  Families were detained at Hutto - a privately operated prison located just outside Austin - from 2006 to 2009.  During that time reports quickly emerged that children as young as eight months old wore prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open-toilets, were subjected to highly restricted movement, and threatened with alarming disciplinary tactics, including threats of separation from their parents if they cried too much or played too loudly. Medical treatment was inadequate and children as young as one lost weight.  The facility was sued by the ACLU and University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic.

When family detention at Hutto was ended in 2009 and no plans for new centers were announced, it was a victory for human rights and dignity. The Obama administration's request for hundreds of millions of dollars to ramp up detention and deportation of refugee families and children is a step backwards and a threat to human rights. 

Fortunately, the outcry was immediate. Refugee, faith, and legal organizations all uniformly opposed expanding family detention, arguing that community support programs and relief efforts are much more appropriate for asylum-seeking children and their families.  More than 100 organizations signed a letter organized by Grassroots Leadership and the Womens Refugee Commission earlier this week.  It’s not too late for the administration and Congress to change course and demand an end - not an expansion - to family detention.

Both President Obama and Gov. Perry, and others, have irresponsibly called the influx of those seeking asylum at the border an issue of failed immigration reform. But this obscures the truth about the families who are coming to the border. The fact is these are not immigrants, but asylum-seekers fleeing violence and terror in their home countries. 

When asylum-seeking families and children show up at our doorstep, we are obligated to open not just the door but our hearts. Detention is not appropriate for any immigrant, much less a refugee family or child. If all the Obama administration has to offer these families is a faster track to lock-up and a ticket back to a violent home, it will go down as one of the more shameful responses to a humanitarian crisis in U.S. history.