The lawsuits, which charge that these children are being imprisoned under inhumane conditions while their parents await immigration decisions, were filed against Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as well as six officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The ACLU brought the lawsuits along with the ACLU of Texas, the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic and the international law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae LLP. The families represented come from countries including Lithuania, Canada, Haiti, Honduras, Somalia, and Guyana, and many have fled dangerous situations and are seeking asylum in the United States.
“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. “This is an affront to our core values as a nation. We need practical, realistic immigration policy, not draconian methods that are harming vulnerable kids.”
The lawsuits charge that by operating the Hutto facility, ICE violates its duty to meet the minimum standards and conditions for the housing and release of all minors in federal immigration custody set forth in a 1997 settlement agreement in the case of Flores v. Meese. Recognizing the vulnerability of children, that settlement established that children should generally be released promptly to family members when possible, that those who do remain in ICE’s custody be placed in the least restrictive setting available, and that regardless of where minors are housed, they be guaranteed basic educational, health, and social benefits and rights.
“ICE fails miserably to meet the required standards by placing children at Hutto,” said Barbara Hines, Clinical Professor of Law with the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic. “These children, who can safely be released with their families under reasonable supervision, are basically imprisoned under conditions that do not meet generally accepted child welfare and juvenile justice standards. It is truly a disgrace.”
Approximately 400 people are currently detained in Hutto, half of them children, and many of them are refugees seeking political asylum. What ICE calls a “Family Residential Facility” is in fact a converted medium-security prison that is still functionally and structurally a prison. Children are required to wear prison garb, receive only one hour of recreation a day, Monday through Friday, and some children did not go outdoors in the fresh air the whole month of December, 2006, according to legal papers filed today. They are detained in small cells for 11-12 hours each day where they cannot keep food and toys and they have no privacy, even when using the toilet.
Despite their urgent needs, many children lack access to adequate medical, dental, and mental health treatment, and are denied meaningful educational opportunities. Guards frequently discipline children by threatening to separate them permanently from their parents, and children are prohibited from having contact visits with non-detained family members.
According to 16-year-old Egle Baubonyte, a Lithuanian girl being held at Hutto with her mother and sister, “Conditions for little kids or even babies are really bad. There’s no pediatrician. Nurses don’t care about if babies are sick. They treat us like we’re nothing.”
In 2005 and 2006, Congress directed DHS to keep immigrant families together, either by releasing them or using alternatives to detention. If detention is necessary, Congress said immigrant families should be housed in non-penal, homelike environments.
“While keeping families together is a laudable goal, there is nothing about Hutto that one can call non-penal or homelike. ICE claims that it opened Hutto to keep families together, but imprisoning families this way cannot be what Congress had in mind,” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU.
The lawsuits seek the release of the detained children and their families under reasonable conditions of supervision, and ask that the government be prohibited from separating the children from their parents.
“The choice is not between enforcement of immigration laws and humane treatment of immigrant families. There are various alternatives under which both can exist,” said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director of the ACLU of Texas.
Copies of the complaints, client profiles, and related materials are available online at: http://www.aclu.org/hutto