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Suit says converted prison not fit for children of immigrants

The ACLU challenges detention while parents appeal their status.

March 07, 2007|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Children are being illegally detained at a converted Texas prison while they wait for their parents' immigration appeals to be heard, the American Civil Liberties Union charged in lawsuits filed Tuesday.

The suits allege that the immigrant children being held at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, are living in substandard conditions and should be released under supervision to religious groups or charities.

"There is simply no justification for imprisoning innocent children who pose no threat to anyone," said Vanita Gupta, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the lawsuit but said in a statement that the facility was "modern" and "designed to humanely accommodate families with children who are detained as a result of ICE enforcing the immigration laws of the United States."

The Hutto center holds 400 people -- half of them children. Built as a so-called family residential center, it was the Bush administration's solution to keeping families together while their immigration status was under review. Corrections Corp. of America -- the nation's largest private prison firm -- operates the 512-bed former state prison.

Immigrant rights groups have staged protests at the Hutto center for months, objecting to its jail-like conditions and long lines for medical care.

But the suits filed Tuesday focus on 10 children living there. In the filings, the ACLU alleges that for 11 to 12 hours a day, children are kept in small cells where toys are not allowed. A light is on at all times. The children must wear government-issued garments and are sometimes disciplined by guards who threaten to permanently separate them from their parents.

ICE is working with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, among other private organizations, to "identify family-specific detention standards," according to the statement.

The Justice Department signed off on a 1997 settlement agreement that established minimum standards for the care of minors in federal custody, according to the lawsuit. One provision called for the "least restrictive setting possible" for detained children.

"That's not happening at Hutto," Gupta said. "We're not questioning ICE's right to enforce immigration law. But why are they resorting to draconian methods when more humane alternatives are available?"

lianne.hart@latimes.com

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