Building Visitation Programs in Texas


The T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, is one of the hundreds of prisons for immigrants in the U.S. The facility now detains only women, most of whom are seeking asylum in the U.S., but it has a darker past as a place where immigrant families, including young children and babies, were once put behind bars. Shortly after winning the end of family detention at Hutto in 2009, Grassroots Leadership began coordinating visitors to Hutto who made sure that the women there knew they were not forgotten. Hutto visitors serve as human rights observers of the facility’s conditions, help break the isolation of detention for women in Hutto, and create new advocates for detention reform. Our program serves as a model for others and Grassroots Leadership is working with organizations across Texas to build new visitation programs.

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Call for Involvement of Faith Communities in Detention Visitation Programs

Visiting Immigrant women in Detention in Taylor, Texas, came into my life at a particular time.  The first year of my return to Austin, after more than 4 years teaching in Xalapa, Mexico was rough.  Finally I turned 62 and began to receive a small income from sociasecurity– as well as land a studio apartment in a Foundations Communities property. Within weeks of moving into my own place and regaining some stability in my life, I attended an Orientation to Visitation.  Geoff Valdes, who was an old friend from when we were part of Accion Zapatista, had suggested the Hutto Visitation Program to me when I told him that I wanted to get involved with something meaningful – where I could use my Spanish.

In November of 2011 I made my first visit to Hutto, with a woman who had been visiting a woman from Guatemala for a month or so already.  After talking to me on a couple of visits, the Guatemalan woman told me that she knew a woman from Honduras who really needed a visit. That is when I met the first woman I would know from Honduras.  Then there was another woman who wanted a visitor; she was from El Salvador.  I have continued to visit, woman after woman, as ICE continues in its relentless seize and capture mission of Central American refugees.  I have never been to Central America – though some astute students of Colonial and Imperialist history of the region might allow me to count three months in Chiapas as Central America.


Building bridges in Dallas

At the end of May I was part of a small delegation that went to Dallas to attend the opening festivities of a newly formed group, the Center for Theological Activism.  At the dinner I met a number of progressive clergy who expressed real interest in learning more about the groups we represented.  Alejandro Caceres and Susana Pimiento were there from the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition and I was there to talk about immigrant detention and the Hutto Visitation Program.  Two of the clergy that seemed to be the most interested in the issue of detention were a Methodist Youth Minister, Jason Redick and the Rev. Jim Mitulski, the senior Pastor of the Cathedral of Hope.

Those of you who participated in the recent action in Waco at the Jack Harwell Center heard Jason Redick’s moving opening prayer.  About the same time as our action in Waco, I received an invitation from Rev. Mitulski’s congregation to be on a panel at the Cathedral of Hope.  They were holding a symposium titled ImagiNATION Immigration and the key speaker was the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.   I spoke about my experiences visiting at the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas.  You can read my remarks here.

It was the first time I had been to the Cathedral of Hope, which is known as the largest LGBT congregation in Dallas, and probably in all of Texas.  The congregation was also racially diverse and included many families and children as well.  In fact, I believe the Cathedral of Hope may be the most integrated, inclusive religious congregation I have had the opportunity to visit.


When it comes to detention, it's about the stories behind the statistics

The following are remarks made by Elaine J. Cohen, a consultant with Grassroots Leadership's Hutto Visitation Program, at ImagiNation: Immigration, an event held at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas featuring immigration reform activist Jose Antonio Vargas and his film DOCUMENTED.   

I have been visiting women at the Hutto Detention center in Taylor, Texas for almost three years — and it has changed my world view and understanding, not only of geo-politics, but of the human experience.  I want to tell you a little about what I’ve learned visiting women in immigrant detention and how you can visit, too. 

I’ve met many women in detention over the years. Out of respect for the dignity and safety of the women that I visit, I will not say their names, though I believe mentioning their country of origin is timely and may help you understand better what has driven so many to come to the U.S.

The first woman I would like to tell you about is from Honduras, the same country that so many families and children are fleeing from right now.   I met her a few weeks ago and two different members of our visitation program have interviewed her.  The story she told each of them was the same.  She told us of the repeated rapes she endured as a young girl — and again by the coyotes who were supposed to bring her safely across the border.  Something else happened, she was picked up by the border patrol and she now sits in immigrant detention at Hutto, which is very much like a prison, hoping to be granted asylum. 


Life after detention is not so simple

At the end of April, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) held its first retreat in Southern California. Bob Libal, Rocio Villalobos and I attended as representatives of the Hutto Visitation Program. We were joined by almost 60 participants who came from all corners of the U.S. There were many people who came from 
Florida, Chicago, New Jersey, Alabama, Louisiana and of course, various parts of California. It was surprising to hear about the different regulations and stumbling blocks to visiting that existed in the different detention centers. In the next months, we will be sharing some of what we learned from the other visitors.

Humpday Hall of Shame: Judge says ICE, CCA are off the hook for sexual assaults in immigrant detention

The 5th Circuit Court is not holding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) responsible for sexual assaults reported by eight women who were formerly detained at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas. 

According to Courthouse News, the women filed a lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, claiming that they were sexually assaulted while being transported by a male guard with no female guard present. According to the contract between the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and ICE, a female guard was to be present during transport of female detainees. The women claimed that 22 male guards had completed 77 such transports. Each plaintiff in the case had been granted asylum and was being transported out of detention at the time of assault. The man accused of these assaults, former CCA guard Donald Dunn, was sentenced to 10 months in prison in 2011. 

A three-judge panel with the 5th Circuit Court dismissed the claims against ICE, insisting that the contractual violations did not necessarily indicate that the women were in danger. Judge Emilio Garza clearly was not concerned: 


The Fourth Annual Dancing Away Detention Was a Hit!

On Thursday, April 17 supporters of TUFF and the Hutto Visitation Program came together at El Sol y La Luna for our 4th annual Dancing Away Detention benefit show. We got to hear the music of Kiko Villamizar as we munched on delicious appetizers, and Queer Qumbia kept folks dancing until the end of the evening. 

The event is organized to raise funds to sustain the work of the Hutto Visitation Program, and this year, we were also able to share a large portion of the money with a family whose resources have been severely strained by the detention of their father, Jose Jiménez Cortez. We received donations for our silent auction from local businesses and artists who gave us a variety of gift certificates, tickets and works of art.


Some thoughts about the relationship between the Hutto Visitation Program and Casa Marianella/Posada Esperanza.

At the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, the incarceration continues of women from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, often perceived and then grouped as "las Latinas" or Spanish speakers.  The relentless, lethal gang wars that are tearing apart their neighborhoods and cities, in addition to domestic violence and sexual exploitation, impels some courageous women to suffer the hell passage on the train that goes from the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala into various points in Mexico. This train is known as la bestia. When they finally cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. they then spend days or as much as two weeks in the cold buildings under the control of the Border Patrol.  There they are subjected not only to extreme cold, absence of adequate clothing and bedding but a daily diet that many have told me consisted of nothing but two bologna sandwiches and water.  One woman asked me, “Is that not what is called torture?”

International Women's Day 2014 in Taylor, Texas; a small caravan of Hutto Visitation Program volunteers went to Hutto

Guest blogger Elaine Cohen shares her experience at the Hutto Detention Center, operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, on International Women's Day. 

March 8 was International Women's Day!  In the past I have gone to many a march or gathering to celebrate.  This year I am happy to say I  visited at Hutto with 5 others from the program: Arielle, Arantxa and Sharon.  Our friend, Stephanie, at American Gateways also gave us information about 17 more women asking for visitors, all of whom are from Honduras or El Salvador.