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Immigrant facility will be upgraded

Children at the Texas center will get better meals and healthcare under a settlement.

August 28, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

houston -- Children detained with their parents at a Texas center for illegal immigrants will receive more nutritious meals, better healthcare, increased freedom to move about and the right to wear pajamas under a legal settlement announced Monday by the federal government and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The agreement was reached just before the start of a federal trial challenging conditions at the controversial T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, a former state prison reopened by a Department of Homeland Security contractor in 2006 to house families caught living in or entering the country illegally.

"We still believe Hutto is an inappropriate facility for children," said Vanita Gupta, an ACLU attorney who served as co-counsel on the case. "But as long as Congress and ICE [the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] allow this to happen, we want to make sure it is the most humane place possible."

From the start, the decision to house children and their parents in jail cells at the Hutto facility has been criticized as draconian by human rights groups and immigrants' rights organizations.

But ICE officials have defended Hutto as the most humane solution possible, noting that at least it kept families united until they were deported or their legal appeals were heard.

"Keeping families together through the removal process ensures that illegal-alien children remain with parents, their best caregivers," the agency said in a statement. "In addition, ICE's family detention program serves as an effective deterrent to families who risk the dangerous journey to the United States."

Before Hutto began receiving national media attention this year, most of the more than 350 inmates at the facility were minors who dressed in jail-style uniforms and were forced to stand by their cots for bed checks several times a day like regular inmates.

Families from more than two dozen nations, most from South and Central America, were being housed. The average stay was just over a month, but seekers of political asylum held at the facility remained longer, with one family staying more than 200 days. Pregnant women said they were not getting prenatal care. Parents said that children were being fed unhealthy meals and constrained to prison cellblocks.

Under the settlement, the Hutto facility will mainly be used to detain families that are caught crossing the border and are quickly deported under the federal government's "expedited removal" policy, rather than asylum seekers or other complicated cases. If a family is held for 30 days, government officials will have to consider releasing them on bond. If a family is held longer than 60 days, government officials must explain why.

Privacy curtains will be put up around toilets. Children will be able to bring toys into their rooms and wear pajamas to bed.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew W. Austin will periodically tour Hutto to ensure that the reforms are followed.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials said Monday that they had already made most of the changes.

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miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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