A kinder, gentler Gitmo?

The New York Times recently reported that the Obama administration intends to reconfigure immigration detention policy, including the closure of the controversial T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas. `See “Same dog, different collar,” August 5, at sacurrent.com.` While that step is long overdue, it is doubtful that Obama will do more than tinker around the edges of the vast, ugly immigration detention system established in the wake of the Bush Administration’s 9/11 panic.

It is a shame that the country that already imprisons more people per capita than any other has created a whole new shadow prison system, specially designed for immigrants, in a patchwork of facilities with poor conditions. It is an even greater shame that this unfortunate legacy of the War on Terror appears likely to long outlast any of the terrorists we were trying to stop and will almost certainly become a permanent fixture on the national landscape.

After 9/11, the government decided to tighten our immigration laws, and the U.S. underwent a crash program to upgrade systems for deporting both illegal aliens and those lawful permanent residents who have committed crimes. Computer networks were created and linked to identify deportable aliens, manpower was increased to capture and deport all those people, and detention facilities sprouted like flowers around the country to hold all those extra people awaiting their deportation or their day in immigration court.

Immediately, problems started to arise, like what to do with children of illegal immigrants. Certainly, it was agreed, you couldn’t put children in prison just because their parents migrated illegally or are awaiting a decision on their asylum applications. But you couldn’t just let them run free, either. After all, they’re illegal immigrants! Hence, the “family residential facilities,” the biggest and most prominent of which was Hutto.

When the ACLU pointed out that Hutto looked an awful lot like a prison (in fact, it was built to be a prison before it was converted to an immigration detention facility), and that the detainees were treated an awful lot like prisoners, a court battle ensued, culminating in a long and painfully detailed settlement agreement.

When I saw the settlement agreement and the documents obtained from the government during the course of the trial, two things stuck out. First, I remember the awful specificity of the terms of the deal — everyone gets his own bed, husbands can visit their wives and parents can visit their children, kids can decorate their rooms and wear pajamas and play with toys, etc. I can imagine lawyers sitting around a conference table hashing out exactly how much the children in Hutto can be children. The fact that our government needs to be monitored by a federal judge to do these basic things should bother us all.

The second thing I distinctly remember was a memo written when the government was considering where to place the family residential center. In the list of pros and cons for Taylor, Texas, I remember one “pro” attribute being that the facility was located in a small town, where there weren’t bothersome things like lawyers and non-governmental organizations to get in the way, although there was a ripple of concern that it might be a tad too close for comfort to Austin. That concern proved to be prescient, as the lawyers from the ACLU in Austin found their way out to Taylor, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I remember my first visit to Hutto, to visit a woman trafficked from Central America who was applying for asylum. After I registered and handed over my driver’s license, bar card, and cell phone, I was picked up by a guard in an SUV to meet my client. After passing through three locked fences topped with barbed wire, I was finally able to visit my client in the attorney visitation area, a closet-sized room with an accordion door. I recall thinking that if they were trying to maintain the pretense that Hutto was not a jail, they were certainly doing an awful job.

Just outside the accordion door sat another guard, who I am sure could hear every word we were saying. So much for attorney-client confidentiality. Incidentally, I was told by a colleague that she ran into someone who built immigration detention facilities, and he told her that there were microphones in every room. When she noted that they probably weren’t in the attorney visitation rooms, he stated emphatically, “every room.” But I digress.

All this brings me to the Port Isabel Detention Facility in Cameron County, Texas. This facility, the biggest in the country, is a popular destination for people from Boston, New York, and other parts of the Northeast U.S. Because the immigration detention system is federal, they can put anyone anywhere. But why build a facility on the southern tip of Texas, and then use it to house people from thousands of miles away? The official reason for moving people so far from their homes is that this is “where the beds are.” But of course the beds are here because they built them here, and it’s difficult to believe there is no closer available space. It is hard not to suspect ulterior motives.

It certainly cannot be a coincidence that Port Isabel is difficult to get to, making it very hard for the detainees to receive family visitors, or to find lawyers and discuss with them their health and treatment. You would be hard-pressed to find a location in the continental U.S. that is more remote and troublesome to get to. Pesky lawyers and NGOs are truly far away this time. As a bonus, the courts are more conservative in this part of the country — no Massachusetts liberals to get in the way. While this kind of “forum-shopping” is not considered proper in our legal system, try proving that is what the Feds are doing. After all, that’s where the beds are.

I had one client at Port Isabel who fractured a bone in his pelvis and pinched a nerve in his spine during his transport to the facility, but was being treated only with painkillers because, he was told, a more intensive treatment had not been approved by superiors in Washington. Three hunger strikes hadn’t done the trick, but I give him points for trying. Another client of mine at the facility had to meet me wearing a surgical mask because, he explained, there was a feared outbreak of swine flu in his cell block. When I asked a guard on my way out if there was really an outbreak of swine flu, he told me that there was a flu outbreak but he couldn’t say what kind. Suffice it to say I was not surprised when I heard that Amnesty International visited Port Isabel in June this year after receiving numerous complaints.

But the real crime is that these immigrants are there at all. Of the approximately 40,000 people in immigration detention, more than half have not been convicted of any crimes. Some were convicted of misdemeanors, such as violating gun-permit regulations or smoking pot, and most of the rest pose no threat to the community, having committed non-violent offenses. If we cannot muster the compassion and pragmatism to provide a path to citizenship for immigrants, let’s at least treat the non-citizens in our midst with basic human dignity and compassion.

Aaron Haas is a staff attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. His next column will appear in the September 16 issue of the Current.

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