Dwindling Hope for Obama’s Immigration Policy

Activists Speculate on the Fate of Family Detention

When she first arrived in the U.S. with her two small children, Denia didn’t realize she was pregnant. Fleeing an abusive relationship in Honduras, she had traveled north to the U.S. to reunite with her mother, a naturalized citizen living in Houston. But instead of reuniting with their grandmother, Denia and her daughters found themselves in a medium-security prison, dressed in prison garb and forced to line up to be counted several times daily. Though pregnant, she was losing weight from lack of food. Guards shouted at her children and threatened to take them away if they misbehaved. Security lights were left on all night, and alarms went off if a child wandered from its cell during the night.

Denia remembers: “I was really scared. I would say: “Dear God, what am I going to do with a newborn here? He’ll die in this freezing cold. It was so cold, and the worst thing was that they wouldn’t give us enough blankets… And how could I get enough rest if resting is prohibited here? I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself properly the way one should after giving birth. I was really worried.” Given an $18,000 bond that they could not afford to pay, she despaired at the thought of giving birth in prison.

The rise of family detention

Unfortunately, Denia’s experiences are not unique. The U.S. has been detaining families since March 2001. In an effort to end what was labeled the ‘catch-and-release’ policy — wherein migrants with immigration violations were given a mandate to appear in court and then released back into the community — the Department of Homeland Security under Michael Chertoff began detaining all immigrants without documents — even those with small children. The first facility for families was an 84-bed converted nursing home in Berks County, PA. At Berks, families were separated by age and gender and slept in dorm-style rooms, 2–8 per room. (Children under 5 slept with their parent.) But even with Berks open, there was not enough room for all the families ICE was detaining. Some were still being released. Others were separated — adults sent to adult facilities while children as young as 6 months old were sent to children’s facilities or foster care. After 9/11, DHS announced it needed more room to expand, and turned to long-time partner Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for solutions.

The largest for-profit corrections company in the country, CCA is best known for its infamous failed bid to take over the corrections operations of the entire state of Tennessee. However, by 2000 CCA had hit hard times and its stocks were at an all-time low. In July 2005, it had been forced to shutter the T. Don Hutto Detention Facility — a medium-security prison in Texas — due to lack of demand. CCA jumped at the government’s offer to pay $2.8 million a month to house immigrant families. In May 2006, it reopened the prison as the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility. Little had changed except the name and the population. Razor wire still laced the fencing, though now with wooden playgrounds in the yard and painted murals in the halls.

“I was shocked. It was like nothing I had ever seen,” said Barbara Hines, director of the University of Texas Immigration Clinic and one of the first to visit Hutto. Frances Valdez, a former UT Immigration Clinic student, adds: “It was surreal. It was everything I had already experienced in other jails, but here was this baby. I would go out [to Hutto] asking [the inmates] about their immigration issues and … they started telling me about the conditions… They were like, ‘Hey, I can’t be here, get me out of here.’ My kids are getting sick, and they can’t eat the food and I can’t eat the food, and they separate us at night and they yell at us and they only give us 15 minutes to eat and my children are really scared and crying and it’s horrible.” Other reports from initial visits describe children in prison garb, poor sanitation, limited education for the children, only one hour of access to fresh air and recreation, and armed guards threatening the families.

Denia’s 5-year-old daughter remembers: “For me it was terrible because I would always dream at night that they were yelling at my mother and they were going take her to another jail. And they had told us that mothers who misbehave and take extra cookies in their pockets [for their kids to eat] would be sent somewhere else and …that they would take the children away from their mothers.

Word spread about the facility and outrage grew. An early report of the rape of an inmate by a guard mobilized neighbors. Local activists from Williamson County and nearby Austin began staging candlelight vigils and protests. Representatives from the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children testified to Congress about its findings at Hutto, recommending the facility be closed immediately. Jorge Bustamante, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, attempted an investigation on conditions in Hutto and was denied access. Two documentaries were made, and screenings staged across the country. Articles appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, The Economist, salon.com, and local papers.

In March 2007, the ACLU and UT Law Clinic waged a lawsuit against ICE maintaining that children were being held in inhumane conditions. Several months later, ICE settled and pledged improvements to facility. Education and recreation times increased, pregnant women were allowed more food, and families permitted to close the door to their rooms as they slept. CCA officials maintain that reforms at Hutto had been underway already and were not due to the lawsuit.

Immigrant detention continued to expand throughout the Bush years. Plans were announced for three similar facilities to be built in other parts of the country, and rumors spread of families held in other unauthorized facilities.

With Obama’s election, hopes soared that the new administration would usher in comprehensive change in immigration policy. In August of this year, ICE Secretary John Morton announced a reworking of the nation’s immigration jail network into a “truly civil detention center.” In August 2009, ICE announced Hutto was to stop taking families, and that plans for three additional family detention facilities were to be scrapped. Obama’s call for progressive reform was, it seemed, coming to fruition. By September 17th, all families had left the facility.

Family Detention Under Obama

Today, Hutto looks pretty much the same as it always has: a drab building tucked just out of town, sandwiched between a train car storage yard and fields of Texas beef cattle. The razor wire is gone, and freshly painted murals inside the facility depict smiling cartoon animals, a reminder to visitors of its former occupants. Hutto is back at maximum occupancy, though this time with women. Even before the last of the families were out, CCA had worked a new contract with ICE to house women from its other immigrant detention facilities at Hutto.

“By more fully utilizing the facility’s capacity and consolidating the female populations from multiple facilities, this change will yield substantial savings each month, “ ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said. And indeed, current reforms seem driven as much by the bottom line as by humanitarian concerns. By ending family detention at Hutto, ICE will save nearly $900,000 per month in contract costs.

The question remains, though: Where are arrested families going today? According to ICE, detained families will now be housed at Berks Family Residential Center in PA. Yet not a single family from Hutto made it to Berks; all were either deported or released. And at an 84-bed capacity, it is hardly sufficient for current needs, let alone for future expansion. Compounding this is an August announcement in the Reading Eagle that Berks County commissioners “are considering getting out of the alien-housing business.” New federal regulations prohibit governmental agencies from turning a profit on these types of services, and the county is just breaking even.

According to ICE spokesperson Carl Rusnok, today “each family… is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The Berks Residential Family Facility is the only facility ICE now uses to house families. Families that are encountered may be placed at Berks, placed on an ‘alternative to detention’ or issued a notice to appear before a federal immigration judge and released on their own recognizance.”

But Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership worries: “I think it is still unclear what is happening to people apprehended at the border. ICE says it is sending people to Berks, but I think there is some concern ICE may facilitate a new family detention center. I think it is important to look critically at Berks… and see if conditions are adequate or if people are being held for long periods of time. Is Berks another 84 beds that ICE doesn’t have to use?” Libal adds: “The advocacy community is ready to fight for increased use of alternatives rather than increased family detention.”

Others worry that ICE has no intentions of limiting detention, only of avoiding the flashpoints that caused public outcry in the past. This spring, it released a request for comments on standards for a family residential facility, leading some to suggest that it will be building its own facilities. “ICE says they are in the process of developing a new assessment tool that will help them determine whether a family can be released, or placed into an alternatives program pending resolution of their status instead of being detained,” says Michelle Brane of the Women’s Refuge Commission. ((The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children has since changed its name to Women’s Refugee Commission.)) “They have told us in the meantime that they are releasing families and using alternatives to detention.”

Alternatives to detention- such as supervised release and ankle-bracelet monitoring- allow a family to remain in the community while greatly improving the chances they’ll make their court hearing. It also saves the government a substantial sum of money: the most expensive alternatives to detention cost $14 per day, compared with detention rates that can exceed $100 per day.

“In general, ICE seems to be moving away from subcontracting its detention needs out to private companies and local jails,” said Lauren Martin, doctoral student at the University of Kentucky. This continued reliance on detention “indicates a lot of continuity between Bush and Obama. They’re going to build facilities for low-risk populations like asylum seekers, families, etc, and actually expand capacity.”

Though all sides agree that Hutto is better than it was when it initially opened, it’s hard to find such enthusiasm about the broader picture. “Even though Hutto no longer holds families, there’s still 512 women being held there. That’s not something that anyone would have advocated for. Beyond that, here they haven’t made any moves to shut down or improve the most egregious conditions in Texas detention centers… There’s a lot of skepticism,” contended Martin.

A recently report by Dr. Dora Schriro, former director of the ICE Office of Detention Policy, focuses federal priorities on detainee care and uniformity at detention centers. The report recommends that ICE establish standards and assessment tools for its detention facilities, improve medical care, and provide federal oversight of its detention operations — all goals lawyers and activists have been calling for.

But with nearly 380,000 immigrants detained in ICE custody a year — 30,000 on any given day in 300 facilities nationwide — it is clear that Obama has not brought a shift away from detention, only a repeal of some of the worse malpractices of the Bush administration. Where family detention will go from here, no one knows for sure. “ICE has made clear that they plan to issue [a Request For Proposals] and open a new facility, one that they say will be better suited to families with young children. It is still unclear what that means,” says Michelle Brane. “For the present, we are all still waiting for answers from ICE.”

Lily Keber is a documentary filmmaker and teacher living in New Orleans. Her film Hutto: America's Family Prison brought family detention to national attention and continues to be used as an activism tool throughout the country. She currently is a trainer for New Orleans Video Voices, a media collective devoted to fostering critical, independent thinking through new media. Read other articles by Lily.

24 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Danny Ray said on November 21st, 2009 at 2:57pm #

    what art of ” they are criminals” do you not understand.

  2. Al said on November 21st, 2009 at 10:49pm #

    No, they are not criminals. Hispanics have a right to be in the USA, you white bastards do not. You stole this land from the Hispanics. Go the fuck back to Europe where you belong!

  3. kalidas said on November 22nd, 2009 at 8:19am #

    Al, and just who are the ancestors of the “Hispanics?”
    If I’m not mistaken, caucasian Spaniards.
    Or did you wash them out of your hair?
    Your ancestors were here killing and plundering the natives 150 years before the Anglos came.
    Is that where this “right” comes from?

    Not to mention people like Swedes, Czechs, Finns, Russians and the vast majority of other Europeans who are totally removed from your ignorant racist nonsense.

  4. Fatima said on November 22nd, 2009 at 10:51am #

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

  5. Danny Ray said on November 22nd, 2009 at 12:12pm #

    The laws for immirgration laws of Mexico, provide the following. I will gladly do unto others etc. etc..

    1. There will be no special bilingual programs in the schools, no special ballots for elections, and all government business will be conducted in our language.

    2. Foreigners will NOT have the right to vote, no matter how long they are here.

    3. Foreigners will NEVER be able to hold political office.

    4. Foreigners will not be a burden to the taxpayers. No welfare, no food stamps, no health care, nor any other government assistance programs.

    5. Foreigners can invest in this country, but it must be an amount equal to 40,000 times the daily minimum wage.

    6. If foreigners do come and want to buy land that will be okay, BUT options will be restricted. You are not allowed to own waterfront property. That property is reserved for citizens naturally born into this country.

    7. Foreigners may not protest; no demonstrations, no waving a foreign flag, no political organizing, no “bad-mouthing” our president or his policies. If you do you will be sent home.

    8. If you do come to this country illegally, you will be hunted down and sent straight to jail.

  6. Sam said on November 22nd, 2009 at 2:26pm #

    No human being is “illegal” or an “alien.” And I don’t like the pejorative word “foreigner” either. We are all citizens on this planet. More and more I’m reading and hearing faux “liberals” using the exact same hateful language as the regressive right-wing trash. Many so-called “liberals” and so-called “progressives” are also spewing the exact same hate at undocumented immigrants as do the rabid right-wing trash. I find that disgusting.

    Real Left and real progressive people have an advantage over the “right.” We actually use the brain in our head and we know that in the history of this planet from time to time the citizens of one area need to move to another area for survival, and in doing so is an intelligent thing to do, instead of sitting in the same place waiting to die. Some day the people here in the States will have to evacuate this nation and then what goes around will come around.

    Viva Latinos, Hispanics, Chicanos and others! And muchísimas gracias for your many contributions to this nation (the States).

  7. kalidas said on November 22nd, 2009 at 3:26pm #

    So I guess blanket omniscience applies to the squats in Palestine as well?
    After all, they’re only human.
    Or something like that.

  8. Don Hawkins said on November 22nd, 2009 at 3:52pm #

    AUJA, West Bank — Once a proud grower of bananas, Abdullah Naji has been harvesting little more than dust in recent years. He blames his ill-fortune both on drought and on Israel’s water policies.

    “Every day I pray for water,” says Naji, 40.

    But his village of Auja, in the heart of the West Bank’s traditionally fertile Jordan Valley, is bone dry. Even the goats cannot find food amid the rocks and dust.

    Naji gave up his banana plantation two years ago and converted to herding sheep.

    “At least now he can complain to his animals,” a neighbour jokes.

    But even feeding the livestock has become a problem, as it is in much of the Middle East which is suffering its worst sustained drought in decades.

    Auja villagers and their animals have survived in recent months thanks to fodder donated by the Oxfam aid group, which has also been delivering storage tanks and water to impoverished communities in the area.

    “They, on the other hand,” Naji says, pointing in the direction of a nearby Israeli settlement, “have all the water they want.”… AFP

  9. Danny Ray said on November 22nd, 2009 at 4:01pm #

    Don and Kalias, this is not about palestinians

    Sam, the laws quoted above, are Mexican laws, not from the United States.

  10. Don Hawkins said on November 22nd, 2009 at 4:09pm #

    Mexico City, Sep 8: Heavy rains have flooded hundreds of homes in the Mexico City metropolitan area and turned streets into rivers, officials said.

    Officials also said, “The downpour briefly closed Mexico City’s airport and swamped four subway stations that were out of operation on Monday, Sep 7.”

    In the suburb of Tlalnepantla, a water drain broke, knocking down walls and sending cars floating down streets with water 5 feet (1 1/2 meters) deep, they said.

    Although heavy rains crippled normal life of people, officials say that it was not enough to fill dams and allow an end to water rationing. India One

    Read between the lines Danny

  11. Mikey said on November 22nd, 2009 at 11:04pm #

    they are humans! fuck borders!

  12. Sam said on November 23rd, 2009 at 12:17am #


    Right-on! My feelings exactly. Gracias.

  13. Alison Gamez said on November 23rd, 2009 at 8:45am #

    So nice to see comments! Here’s mine, quoted from a Libertarian institute named Cato: “We are all created equal , as defined by our natural rights; thus, no one has rights superior to those of anyone else.” This is from an article about the Declaration of Indepenedence and the Constitution. THIS is what American law is supposed to be about and that’s why it’s imperative that we as a natrion have a fair, uniform legalization and naturalization process in this country for all friendly immigrants. And the sad truth is, we don’t. And that is why they enter illegally. Becauise we have allowed no simple way for them to enter legally, as we did in the past for our European ancestors. Instead of quoting the Mexican constitution, try reading ours.

  14. Lawless Environment said on November 23rd, 2009 at 8:46am #

    There are no more laws that should exist. Just take and do whatever you want, anytime, anywhere. Either laws apply to everyone or they apply to no one. What way do YOU want it ?

  15. Danny Ray said on November 23rd, 2009 at 9:14am #


    I have read our Constitution, and several others as well. I have no problem if you want to change the constitution to let everyone in, that’s fine, but till it is changed by a simple majority , illegal immigrants are still just that ILLEGAL

    The left is always claiming that we are a nation of laws, everyone is subject to them, until you find a law you do not like, and then you do not have to obey that one.

  16. Sam said on November 23rd, 2009 at 1:41pm #

    A quote: “Who are you calling ‘illegal,’ pilgrim?”

    Exactly. If one is not a direct descendant of the Native Americans, you are “illegal” (to use the derogatory, nasty and pejorative term that the rabid right-wing trash and the faux “progressives/liberals” like to use).

  17. B99 said on November 23rd, 2009 at 2:09pm #

    Sam – It depends who makes the laws. Immoral as the colonization of the Americas was (both North and South), the world’s nations recognize the right of states to determine who is legal and who is not. In this, the US is no different than others.

  18. Sam said on November 23rd, 2009 at 2:53pm #


    I don’t give a damn about the world’s nations and their many corrupt government and what they do or don’t recognize. As Mikey said: Fuk borders. I agree. This border shit has caused so many problems for generations from wars to….(you name it!)….

    Borders = nothing but problems.

  19. B99 said on November 23rd, 2009 at 3:08pm #

    Sam – Nor do the states care about your opinion on the matter. It means almost next to nothing what any of us think about borders – the state system exists and it is very powerful. If you say there are no illegals and no borders, you’d still need an army to enforce it. How many divisions do you command?

    Discrete borders and the state system came with the rise of merchant class in Europe centuries ago. You can say, fuck borders, but there are very few places you can come and go without going thru customs. People are shot for doing so.

  20. Sam said on November 23rd, 2009 at 5:39pm #


    Nor do the states care about your opinion on the matter either. And just because (corrupt) governments around the world have these despicable policies doesn’t make it right or just or fair. Period. Governments create a lot of injustices around the planet. If people didn’t have immigration to argue about, they would find something else. Religion would crop up for people to argue about and never agree on that. It doesn’t matter what the topic, humans will find something to argue about and disagree on. I’m not here to argue with anyone because I know I’m not about to change anyone’s opinion. I’m here to state my opinion and that’s all I consider myself doing, because in the end none of our opinions matter to any scum of the Earth politician on this planet. Most of them could care less what any of us think.

  21. B99 said on November 23rd, 2009 at 7:39pm #

    Right Sam – states do not care about my opinion on the matter of borders – which is why I can’t say , fuck ’em and have it mean anything.

    I do understand several things though. Immigrants are here by invite, whether legal or illegal. They are here because businesses want their cheap labor, and consumers want cheap prices for goods and services. As long as wages are suppressed in our country there will be a willing labor supply from abroad.

    But we should also understand that radical culture change is going to cause great social upheavals across the nation. Would we not understand and sympathize with Mexico if it had to accept becoming 15 to 20 % Anglo over a matter of a decade and a half? No, we would defend the right of Mexico to retain its cultural heritage.

    Yet, in a world where we expect capital to move freely around the world making and breaking entire nations – because that’s what the capitalists say is good – why is it that borders only serve to restrict the movement of labor?

    It’s a complicated issue.

  22. tomcat... said on November 24th, 2009 at 8:33am #

    It should be considerd a matter of NATIONAL concern!!!!!America is going through a resession …..what better time to close the borders!Why when this nation has it’s own problems with it’s own nationals should we be expected to still show concern for illegal immigrants rights?By definition they are here illegally!!And when the arguments from hispanics is …”this is our land and you stole it hundreds of years ago…”it makes you wonder how serious you can take them!!Seriously….that argument is’nt even relevant !reallity is this…EVEWRY government has laws whether the people like them or not , nobody can enter any country illegally !!! If you have children with you and are depending on a particular country”s sympathy…shame on you for putting your children in that situation in the first place!!!People from latin america come north…why? There is dozens of latin nations all around them who, one would think ,would be ever more sympathetic to their plight than “evil ol’ white folks” here in the U.S.A. Why then don’t they go to ANY of these nations? Because those countries DON’T give a damn about them!! America is the only place a non national can come and argue with us on how WE should be taking care of THEM!!!People in their own country care less and all of the nations around them with the same racial and ethnic heritage could care even less!!!That should be the topic of discussion not “whites don’t want non whites in america….”why won’t LATIN AMERICA help it’s own??????because it can’t????well , we are going through economic self destruction ourselves….not just whites….AMERICANS!! so is it a good time to be concerned for ourselves?

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  24. 1234 said on November 27th, 2009 at 7:15pm #


    As a young american in this country you truly prove to me the horrible things and persons that exist in this country and that put us in these problems in the first place. It is a true shame to have an adult speak like this so selfish and unconcerned for others in need. Here in America you are crying for not being able to but more Chanel purses yet in Mexico and Latin American countries people are worried about what to eat and how to survive. If you strongly believe this is not our problem then I am very glad that you do not hold puclic office because the country is in ruins as it is imagine it with a closed minded person such as yourself.. I can speak for all the youth here in America and state that we are all open to different races, ethnicities, people, languages and so on and that we can make a progress in this nation unlike in other other nations. In conclusion, other countries do not give immigrants aid because they do not hold the resources yet the US can make anything come true. As for the quote “whites do not want nonwhites” I completely disagree with you because you cannot represent this whole race, it would be a shame to our country and I suggest that you reflect back on your life and analyze how YOU have been helped by immigration..

    (Please do not respond to this in a negative way it is solely my idea and that of course cannot be changed, I would like the opportunity to express and let you know to think what you say and act like a mature adult instead of an ignorant one who can’t spell )