The article below appeared in a print-only publication. See also Tilda Sosaya’s essential expose of prison privateers at Prison Legal News–gm.
By Jane Chamberlain
Nokoa: The Observer
by permission of the author
More than four hundred demonstrators gathered on Saturday, June 23, for a vigil in front of T. Don Hutto prison in Taylor where refugee families with children are being incarcerated for the crime of seeking residence in the U.S. The children are treated like criminals incarcerated after convictions: wakened for breakfast at 5:30 a.m., deprived of privacy for personal care (open commodes in cells), and threatened with separation from their mothers if they misbehave or play too loudly.
Saturday’s event was sponsored by Amnesty International and cosponsored by three Texas coalitions made up of diverse organizations including American Friends Service Committee, NAACP, Brown Berets of San Antonio, Cesar E. Chavez March for Justice, Council of American Islamic Relations, Fuerza Unida, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, MADRES, Muslim Legal Fund of America, PODER, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southwest Workers Union, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Indigenous Council, Workers Defense Project / Proyecto Defensa Laboral, and others.
Crowded into the easement of a two-lane road between a railroad track on the north and the prison to the south, the demonstrators demanded that ICE/DHS close Hutto and adopt less repressive and less expensive ways to address these “crimes” that are often bureaucratic glitches caused by errors and lapses on the part of lawyers, courts, and the immigration hierarchy.
Hutto prison was nearly empty and threatened with shutdown in 2005, until Katrina sent New Orleans prison administrators in search of new housing for their inmates. Hutto served that purpose, then in May 2006, Homeland Security offered a contract to use Hutto as a detention center for undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation. The detainment center opened in May 2006. The contract promises over $15 million to Taylor annually, about 4 percent of the city’s tax base. But the annual return it brings Corrections Corporation of America, the company that contracts to run the prison, could run as high as $35 million with maximum occupancy. In 2006 the Forbes 400 ranking named CCA leader in “business services and supplies” with earnings up 130 percent over the previous year.
The inmate population has varied from around 280 upwards to 400, with a maximum capacity of 512. Though some are captured trying to enter the U.S. or taken in ICE raids of businesses nationwide, many are asylum-seeking, long-time legal residents whose paperwork has lapsed for various reasons. The ACLU and University of Texas have filed several lawsuits against Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Dept. of Homeland Security and six officials from I.C.E. on behalf of 17 detained children.
Speakers at the Saturday event included Rosa Rosales, national president of LULAC, Jay Johnson-Castro, the “Border Ambassador” of Del Rio who has spearheaded eight previous vigils at the prison, Elizabeth Kucinich, human rights activist and wife of presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, and two immigrants who were held in the Texas immigrant detention facilities. Elsa (last name withheld) spoke of her life at Hutto: “Just imagine being locked up for 24 hours a day and having your children tell you, “Mom, why can’t we get out of here?” Many times my three year old daughter would cry and say, “Where is God? Why doesn’t he take us out of here?” I would pray to God to break the walls down. . . . And at times my kids would say, “Why are we locked up? I thought only criminals, people who rob and steal got locked up.”
Jay Johnson-Castro introduced Rusten, Hamde, and Nebil Weber, children of Aziza Mohamed, who has been locked up in Hutto for the past six months. “This is not for national security,” he said. “The people in here are asylum seekers. It’s not a crime to seek asylum. What is going on when our government is dividing families? No child left behind?! These children aren’t with their mother. Why? What crime has she committed — perhaps seeking asylum, wanting to be an American?”
LULAC president Rosa Rosales insisted, “Children should not be imprisoned because their parents have no papers. No human being is illegal and no child should be behind bars.” Another LULAC representative, Rita Gonzales-Garza, talked about the “horrendous injustice our government is carrying out against innocent women and children here at Hutto.” She pointed out that the DHS/ICE policy of using private prisons is “making millionaires while imprisoning people who are in the U.S. seeking asylum and a better life. They are not criminals — they are our brothers and sisters.”
It was hard to hear the speakers at times as parades of demonstrators, some wearing T-shirts that read “No child left behind bars,” marched back and forth chanting, “Shut down Hutto” and “No justice, no peace.”
An editorial in the Daily Texan (6/26/07) points out, “Prisoners inside Hutto come from countries around the world that the United States has intervened in militarily, like Somalia, or economically, like Honduras. The U.S. government cannot feign ignorance about why emigrants attempt to escape repression from U.S.-friendly rulers or neoliberal trade policy in their home countries. This country’s incomparable wealth and purported juridical freedom inspire immigrants to enter by any possible means.” A wider knowledge of our country’s destructive actions abroad must be an important part of the continuing dialogue on immigration.