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Immigration's net binds children too

Hundreds of minors are being held with parents caught illegally in the U.S. The facilities and conditions are like jail.

February 10, 2007|Nicole Gaouette and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

In November 2005, Homeland Security officials announced the Secure Border Initiative, an effort to end illegal border crossings. Secretary Michael Chertoff had identified families as a particular problem because the department lacked facilities to detain them. Human rights groups protested separations.

"We could let families go or split them up," Mead said. "Hutto became very important to ending that."

The facility is run by the Corrections Corp. of America, a government contractor paid $95 per person a day. Watchdogs have found mismanagement at Corrections Corp. facilities, including inadequate medical care, failure to control violence, and substandard conditions.

In the two weeks since Sebastien and Khadijah Bessuges arrived, Homeland Security has upgraded Hutto. Razor wire has been removed from the entrance. Artificial plants camouflage the iron entry gates. Walls and doors are plastered in brightly colored paper, cheerful stickers and big letters. But the decor, installed before a media tour Friday, cannot disguise the fact that Hutto is a prison.

"We have tried to soften the facility as much as possible," said Mead, who led the tour.

The Homeland Security Department also has tried to improve the food, say immigrants' advocates, who attribute the changes to media attention. The department has expanded Hutto's academic programs from an hour a day to four, and plans to introduce a curriculum based on Texas standards.

Last week, inmates staged a hunger strike to protest the food and other conditions. Sebastien Bessuges said Khadijah had lost 4 pounds at Hutto.

Homeland Security officials countered Friday with a study showing that 81% of Hutto detainees gained weight during their stay.

Advocates and attorneys concerned about the facility say the medical care is insufficient and there is no pediatrician.

Lawyer Griselda Ponce said one client's untreated leg injury eventually required emergency surgery, and a 4-year-old girl's lips cracked and bled before medical staff would respond to her mother's requests for balm.

Children and parents can blow off steam an hour a day in a gym. The rest of the time, they are kept in pods of several cells. Some locks are disengaged, then armed at night with lasers and alarms.

Bessuges said Khadijah had quarreled with other children and guards had told him he must hold her in check or damage his chances of avoiding deportation.

"Yesterday, I ... found out she was removed from school in Arizona because of all the time she's missed," he said, his voice quieting.

"But I can't tell her that. That would break her heart."

Bessuges had visited a federal immigration center last month to see what forms he needed to extend his stay in the U.S. The next day, immigration agents raided his suburban Phoenix home and detained him and Khadijah.

The following day, Bessuges said, immigration officials gave him a choice: He and his daughter could stay in Arizona in separate detention centers, or they could board a plane for the Texas detention center and be together.

"I would never leave her," Bessuges said. "It's fine to make me pay for the mistakes I have made. But ... no child deserves this."

Gaouette reported from Washington and Bustillo from Texas.

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