(AUSTIN, Texas) — A disturbing pattern is emerging as federal immigration officials in Central Texas refuse to allow an independent inspection at a women’s detention facility while completely ignoring outcry from attorneys and judges over violations of due process after a mass transfer from the same facility.
Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials transferred approximately 60 women en masse from the Hutto detention facility in Taylor, Texas to one in Laredo, Texas. Both facilities are operated by private prison company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). While transfers between facilities are common, this is the largest in recent memory at Hutto. It set off a series of problems including violations of due process, ICE’s own policies and detained women’s human rights. The mass transfer also disrupted women’s access to counsel and to visitation from the local community.
The Hutto detention center is not new to anyone watching the vast U.S. immigrant detention system. This month marks seven years since President Obama announced that family detention would end at Hutto and no new family detention centers would be opened. Obama reversed course in 2014, presiding over a massive expansion of family detention. Billed by ICE and CCA as a “model” facility, Hutto remains a place of abuse and neglect.
“My mom came to this country believing that she would find help but it was actually a torture for her. She only came here looking for refuge and they couldn't even do that for an elderly woman,” said Rosa Alvaro (name changed to protect identity), whose mom was detained at Hutto for months before being transferred to Laredo and deported. “The entire time my mom was in detention was torture for me, to hear how she cried, how there were days that she wanted to die from the pain she was in. She explained to me that they did everything possible so that she would be deported.”
In October, the Hutto facility was the site of one in a spate of hunger strikes that spread through immigrant detention centers around the U.S. during 2015. Women who went on strike at Hutto demanded immediate release and put a spotlight on their prolonged detention. Women were also transferred to Laredo during the hunger strike in what they described as retaliation.
Attorneys representing some of the women transferred, along with immigrant rights advocates, sent a July 19 letter to ICE detailing the scope of the problems created by the sudden transfer, including that they had not been notified with adequate time. ICE’s own policies direct officials to release asylum seekers who pass an initial interview and to keep them close to their legal counsel.
The letter asked for both a response regarding due process concerns, and the release of all women subject to the transfer to Laredo as an immediate remedy. ICE has not responded to their concerns at all. “We are extremely frustrated that ICE seems unwilling to engage with us on this issue. We know from experience that transfers only serve to prolong detention, thus placing a great deal of additional strain on our clients while also imposing greater costs on the federal government. It is truly puzzling that we can’t seem to some sort of agreement on this issue,” said Robert Painter, interim executive director of American Gateways, which represents women detained at Hutto in their immigration cases.
The letter reads in part, “Though this is not the first time such a transfer has taken place from Hutto to Laredo, this is by far the most harmful large-scale transfer we have seen. This transfer represents a grossly inefficient use of resources, violates detainees’ due process rights, and has severely impacted the women’s basic human rights because of harsh detention conditions at the Laredo facility.” It also details the havoc the mass transfer caused in an already-backlogged court and that the transfer appears to violate the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s recommendations about transfers.
The mass transfer, which was unannounced and remains unexplained, comes nearly four months since a group of NGOs submitted required materials for a “Stakeholder Facility Tour,” which permits non-governmental organizations (like Grassroots Leadership) to access the facility and interview people detained, in line with ICE’s own policy standards. ICE has so far denied the 12 groups who requested access in a April 20 letter.
“Testimony from women who went on hunger strike there last year shows us why we cannot take ICE’s word that everything is fine inside Hutto,” said Bethany Carson, immigration researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership. “The fact that they won’t let NGOs in for an inspection, which they are required to allow, should raise serious concerns about what is going on at Hutto. ICE must allow an inspection immediately; what are they hiding?”
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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works to end prison profiteering and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.
Cristina Parker, firstname.lastname@example.org, 512-499-8111