A different kind of NIMBYism

December 17, 2007Duke Law News

December 17, 2007 -- Imagine a place where innocent children reside in cell blocks, shiver in prison uniforms too thin to protect them against the cold, and cannot possess toys or even crayons in their living area. Not in the United States, right? Think again.

According to Professor Barbara Hines, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, these conditions and much worse existed at the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas, prior to August 2007. Speaking at an event hosted by the Duke Law Refugee Asylum Project, Hines described the daily life of immigrants and their families in the former medium-security prison. Detainees, including the children, lived and spent the majority of their time in cell blocks, wore prison uniforms, stopped several times a day to be counted, and could not move throughout the facility without a guard, Hines said.

“One of the things the government said was that they had to do this to control the borders,” Hines said. “But many people who ended up at Hutto were not coming across the southern border.” At any given time, 12 to 13 Iraqi families were detained in the facility, as well as families from Somalia, Iran, and many other countries — all seeking asylum, Hines said.

In March 2007, the ACLU, ACLU of Texas, University of Texas School of Law immigration clinic, and law firm of LaBeouf Lamb Greene & MacRae filed a lawsuit on behalf of 26 immigrant children detained with their parents at Hutto. The suit alleged that the children were provided soiled or dirty clothes, refused proper or, in some instances any, medical care, fed nutritionally inadequate meals, and subjected to mental and emotional anguish.

“If you are going to detain children, there are a lot of other alternatives,” Hines said, referring to the 1997 federal agreement reached in the Flores v. Meese case. The agreement, which states specifically that detained children must be kept in the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs, was the basis of the Hutto lawsuit.

The case was settled before going to trial in August 2007, an outcome that Hines considers a victory, given the location of the facility. “One of the things that I think the government does with these detention facilities is strategically pick where they will be located,” she said. “And the Fifth [U.S.] Circuit [Court of Appeals] is very hostile to the rights of immigrants.”

The settlement mandates that the legal process for families detained at Hutto be expedited and the facility has been required to review their standards, hire child welfare experts, improve the quality of the food, and remove the locks from cell doors. Children no longer wear prison uniforms, can possess toys in their living areas, and are taken on regular field trips, as well, Hines said.

Despite the lawsuit’s success, Hines said her clinic is still working to close the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility. “If you’re going to change anything, you need a concerted strategy,” she said. “Litigation, because of a lot of limitations, is not the only option. You can achieve some things through litigation, some through the press, and some through advocacy. We are continuing now with an advocacy strategy to really try to shut this place down.”