Human rights groups are calling for the U.S. government to shut down a jail in Texas where about 200 immigrant children, some only infants, are being detained. The Hutto facility in Taylor, Texas, is owned by the private prison company, Corrections Corporations of America. We speak to an immigrant rights advocate who visited the center and an attorney for families being held in Texas immigration detention centers. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Human rights groups are calling for the U.S. government to shut down a jail in Texas, where about 200 immigrant children, some only infants, are being detained. Ten months ago, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began holding families in the Hutto facility in Taylor, Texas, owned by the private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America. Many of the families held at the facility are seeking asylum in the United States. For months, immigration officials refused to allow outside groups or the media into the center, but late last year, researchers from the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children and the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service were allowed inside.
AMY GOODMAN: The two groups have just released a report called "Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families." Michelle Brane is co-author of the report. She’s the director of the Detention and Asylum Program at the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. She joins us from Washington, D.C. And with us here in our firehouse studio is immigration attorney Joshua Bardavid. Earlier this week, he filed a habeas petition on behalf of five members of a Palestinian family being held in another immigration prison in Texas.
We repeatedly called both the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, and the Corrections Corporation of America to invite them on the program. They didn’t respond to our requests.
Let’s begin with Michelle Brane in Washington, D.C. Can you talk about the major findings in your report, "Locking Up Family Values"?
MICHELLE BRANE: Sure. We were investigating the use of family detention by ICE overall, and they’re using two facilities to hold families. So we visited both the facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and the facility that you mentioned in Hutto in Texas. When we went to Texas, we went in on December 4th of 2006. And really, what we found is that it’s a former prison that is now being used to house families, and it still looks and feels very much like a prison. And even though they’ve made some modifications to accommodate children, such as putting railings on the bunk beds and painting some murals, it doesn’t really change the fact that it’s a prison, and people in there are treated still very much like prisoners.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the people who being detained here, are these folks who have entered the country illegally? Are they largely asylum applicants?
MICHELLE BRANE: We weren’t able to get exact statistics on what percentage of the people being held there are asylum seekers, but it does appear that the majority of them are seeking asylum. Everybody who’s there is in some sort of immigration proceeding. Either they’ve been apprehended at the border crossing illegally, or they’ve — some of them have been apprehended inside the country, and I think your other guest can speak to his clients in that case. So there’s people in all sorts of proceedings, but what is interesting is that none of the people held at these facilities have any criminal charges pending against them, nor do they have any criminal backgrounds.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us, Michelle Brane, a historical context for locking up whole families?
MICHELLE BRANE: Sure. It’s a fairly new thing to lock up families together as family units. The Department of Homeland Security used to separate families, and before, INS. They sometimes held families in hotel rooms, but for the most part, families were either released, pending a hearing, or what they started to do post-9/11 more, as they kind of were ending the practice of releasing people to the community, was separating families. So they would take the adults in the family and put them in adult facilities — you know, the mother in a facility for women, the father in a male facility — and the children would be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office for Refugee Resettlement, who takes custody of unaccompanied children in these proceedings. And they would be responsible for them until the case was resolved.
When Congress heard about this, they expressed concern about separating families and instructed ICE to stop separating families. And, actually, what they recommended was that ICE use alternatives, such as a program that currently exists that is run by ICE called the Intensive [Supervision] Appearance Program. And what they recommended also was that if these programs couldn’t be used and detention was necessary, that home-like, non-penal environments be used.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you tell us about the conditions that you found in these centers and, specifically, the impact on the children of being locked up?
MICHELLE BRANE: Sure. I mean, the facility in Hutto, in particular, is — I don’t think it can be described anywhere near a home-like, non-penal environment. As I mentioned, it is a former prison that still looks and feels very much like a prison. Children, families sleep in cells at night, where children are very often separated from their parents. So at night, some children do remain in the cell with their parents, and others are separated into separate cells. It depends on family size, space and the age of the child. But children as young as six can be separated at night. And, in fact, at the Berks County facility, all children over five sleep separately from their parents. And at night, these parents cannot get to their children. So, many parents talked of their children crying at night or being sick at night and not being able to go to them. While the doors of the cells at the Hutto facility are not locked — they’ve disengaged the locks on the cell doors — there is a laser beam that shoots across the line of cells so that if a door is opened, an alarm would go off.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Michelle Brane, who is one of the people who just published this report, "Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families." Joshua Bardavid is also with us, an immigration lawyer here in New York. Can you talk about your clients, the Hazahza family?
JOSHUA BARDAVID: The Hazahza family is actually being held at a different facility than the Hutto facility. They’re being held in Haskell, Texas, the Rolling Plains Regional Detention Center. Two members of the Hazahza family were held at Hutto, but have since been released: the mother and an 11-year-old child. The remaining members of the family are being held in what is a county prison that holds violent criminal offenders, who are there — some of whom are there for life. They are being held in absolute prison-like facility.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to break in for one minute, because we have just gotten a call from the Hutto detention facility. We’re joined on the phone by an Iranian immigrant named Majid, from inside the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas. He, his wife, his nine-year-old son Kevin have been held at the center for the past 19 days. Majid, your story is quite a remarkable one. Can you tell us how you ended up at this Texas jail?
MAJID: Hello. Thanks for taking my call. I was on my way to go to Toronto, Canada, and my plane was —- after three hours in the flight, somebody died on the plane and had an emergency landing to Costa Rica. After that, they said everybody should come out. After that, we went out. Immigration, they said you need to have American visa. We had no American visa. And they hold us over there -—
AMY GOODMAN: Now, just to be clear, you were never planning to end up in the United States, is that right? You were flying to Canada, but another passenger on the plane had a heart attack, and so you guys had a forced landing in Puerto Rico, and when you had to come out of the plane, while he was taken off the plane, that’s when they took you?
MAJID: Yes. This happened, yes — was a Canadian Zoom Airline, and our ticket was direct from Guyana to Toronto. And this happened. They hold us — my son is Canadian —- hold child is nine-and-a-half years old, and they put us in detention in Puerto Rico. And from Monday to Friday, I was in the jail in Puerto Rico between criminal people, and my wife and son was other place. We had no news from each other from Monday morning until Friday at noon, until we see each other in a Puerto Rico airport. After that, they brought us here to Hutto Detention Center, and here we are in same part, but different room. My wife and my son is room, but it’s totally inside the room, uncovered toilet. My son has asthma, and he’s very bad and still comes here. It’s very horrible here. And we are in very bad situation. We need help. We need the people help me -—
JUAN GONZALEZ: Majid, in other words, basically, what reason did they give you for holding you if you never intended to enter the United States at all? What reason did they give for locking you up?
MAJID: Because they said, "You have an American visa?" That’s why you have to stay here. Just plane was waiting one hour for us, but they didn’t let us pass. A few officers came. They said Immigration officers — six, seven — they said, "We’re going to send you, but let us make decision." After that, they called the police chief. He came there. He said, "Let me think five minutes." After five minutes, he came, he said, "I’m going to send you to Canada, but I’m afraid to lose my job. But usually we have to send with your plane, but we keep you here. America is much better than Canada. Here you have safer place. We send you to hotel, and after a few days, you’re going to be free." But they broke their promise. That’s why they keep us here, and we have very bad situation here.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Do you know whether any other passengers on your plane were also detained in the same way, or was your family the only one, as far as you can tell?
MAJID: Only my family. No other passenger.
AMY GOODMAN: I just want to say to our listeners and viewers, we are not giving your full name, we’re not showing your face at your request. You did apply for political asylum in Canada in the past when you lived there for 10 years. You were ultimately denied, sent back to Iran. And what happened when you were sent back to Iran, you and your wife?
MAJID: Yes. In December 2005, we sent to Iran, whole family, when my Canadian son born. And all documents — the immigration officer gave all our documents to the captain of plane. After that, in Italy, we went with the Alitalia Airline. In Italy, police came to plane. They took us to [inaudible] room in the transit of Italy, and after that, again, they put us in the plane and give all documents to the captain of Alitalia again. We went to Iran, and in Iran, the plane’s captain said, "You have to sit until the police come to take you." All passengers went out, and four Iranian secret police came in the plane, and he got all documents from the captain, and they took us in the airport in the secret police office. We were there for a few hours, four or five hours, in the same room.
After that, they separate us. They took me to other place, unknown place. I was in Iran a small cell for six months, and lots of torture and hitting. Now I have physical problem and knee problem and lots of things. And they took my wife to other prison, where we have no news from each other. And for six months, my wife was one year and one month in the prison, and she [inaudible] — after she was free she [inaudible] the child, and because they [inaudible] him, and she was [inaudible] two, three time in the jail. And it’s a very bad situation. But we had no news from each other. They told my wife, because your husband, you have to cooperate with us.
AMY GOODMAN: They said they killed you?
MAJID: Yeah, they a few times told. One time they told her, "He’s in coma." The other time, they said, "Already he was killed." And, you know, many times they play with her. After one month, they free her in the street at nighttime. They did with me, too, after six months, a lot of torture. And this one, they free me in the street out of the town with closed eyes. And I didn’t see anybody, but they took me in daytime some day in winter — you know, they take my pants off to put in very cold water. They already broke the ice, they put in the water, and they hit me every day, hitting me.
And when I came out, I was less than 30 kilograms, my weight. And my wife was different, six months was under psychologist’s medication over that. And after free, I should register two times a week, every Sunday and Thursday. And when I took — they took us over there, they took me over there again. One week, they put me in detention, and the other time, again three days. And after that, one guard told me, "I’m going to help you." After that, he called me, said, "OK, your future is very dangerous. You have to leave. Otherwise, you are in big trouble. I don’t know what will happen to you and your family." That’s why we decided and we escaped from there.
AMY GOODMAN: And you tried to go to Canada. Can you put your son Kevin on? He’s standing next to you, nine years old?
MAJID: Yes. Just hold on, please?
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. We’re talking to Majid and Kevin in the Hutto Detention Center that’s run by the Corrections Corporation of America in Taylor, Texas.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi, Kevin. How are you?
KEVIN: Not good.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us the situation you’re in right now and what you want to happen right now?
KEVIN: Excuse me, I didn’t hear you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe where you are right now?
KEVIN: I’m in U.S. jail right now.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Kevin, where are you staying at night? Are you with your parents, or are they locking you up separately?
KEVIN: I’m with my parents, but we’re in separate rooms.
JUAN GONZALEZ: In separate rooms?
JUAN GONZALEZ: And are they letting you — are you getting any kind of education, or are you just sitting in your cell all day?
KEVIN: We’re sitting in the cell all day.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to do now, Kevin?
KEVIN: I want to be free. I want to go outside, and I want to go to school. I want to be in my homeland: Canada.
AMY GOODMAN: You want to go home to Canada?
AMY GOODMAN: You want to go home to Canada?
KEVIN: Yeah. My home is in Canada.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you with your parents in Iran?
KEVIN: My parents — what?
AMY GOODMAN: Were you with your mother and father in Iran?
AMY GOODMAN: And you were coming on the plane?
AMY GOODMAN: What are the people telling you? Can you go to Canada?
AMY GOODMAN: What are the guards telling you? Will they release you?
KEVIN: I forgot what they were saying, but they told us some stuff. I forgot what they were saying to us.
JUAN GONZALEZ: How are the other children there? Are you spending time with any of the other children?
AMY GOODMAN: They don’t let you spend time with the other children?
KEVIN: No. I’m sleeping beside the washroom, and I can’t — and I’m upstairs. I can’t go to the washroom all the time. And there’s a lot of smell coming out from the washroom. And the food is garbage. And the school is very bad. I can’t learn anything good. And I have asthma, and I got sick in here. I can’t stay here anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Kevin, you said you’re sleeping next to the bathroom?
KEVIN: Yeah. And it’s not a separate room. It’s right beside the bed. And I’m sleeping beside the wall, and my back gets sick and it hurts.
AMY GOODMAN: How is your mother?
KEVIN: My mother is sick.
AMY GOODMAN: Kevin, can you put your father back on the phone?
AMY GOODMAN: Kevin is nine years old. He’s a Canadian citizen, came from Iran with his parents. They were flying over the United States, when the plane had to land in Puerto Rico because a passenger had a heart attack, and when they landed, the Majid family — we’re not using their real name — was taken off the flight. Majid, have you talked to the Canadian Consulate, and what is your hope when you get to Canada, if you get to Canada?
MAJID: Yeah, on Monday, they came here. They said — they come here, and we spoke to each other. They mostly asked my wife and Kevin, "What’s your food, and what kind of food they give you? Are you in same room with family?" My son said no, because he said, I was told — "All your family in one room?" — he said, "No, we are in separate room, and the toilet is inside, the uncovered toilet, in the room." And only they said [inaudible] said, "You’re going to help us?" They said, "We don’t know. You have to speak with your lawyer." After that, just regarding information, my son’s birth certificate information, and they left. And two days ago, I tried to call them in consul, and no response, because he was to be phone. I tried again, but I couldn’t reach him. No more information I have.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Majid, now, do you have a lawyer who is helping you? And do you have a scheduled hearing anytime in the future on your case?
MAJID: Yeah. I have lawyers that’s from immigration clinic here. They’re students. They’re working. They are very good people. And no hearing. Two or three time, I requested for hearing, but no response so far in the past 17, 18 days here. No response. We don’t know what’s going to happen for us.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you want to stay in the United States?
MAJID: You know, we escaped from Iran, OK? We escaped to be safe and free with my family. But our plan was in Canada. And I don’t know, they keep us here. Anyway, we want safe and free, Canada or U.S. If Canada give us a visa, we go there; we go to U.S., if here, we’ll stay here.
AMY GOODMAN: Why are you afraid to use your full name or to show your face?
MAJID: Because everybody knows the Iran. The Iran’s — like this, we are in very bad situation, because I don’t trust here immigration, because the first time they said lots of things to us, but they broke their promise. They said you’re going to happen this, this, but now they said we’re going to deported. OK, maybe we deported. And we are like this. We are in 100 percent in danger. If our whole full name goes, it’s 200 percent in danger, because especially United States — if you go from other country, you have less risk with government. If you go from United States, because they said "U.S. is our enemy," they said, Iranian authorities says, OK? But that’s why we are in more and more trouble if we go back, because they will say, "Why you go to U.S. and this happen?"
AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Bardavid is an attorney that we are sitting with in the New York studio. When you listen to this story, what are your thoughts?
JOSHUA BARDAVID: Unfortunately, this is — what he is experiencing is a very common experience. It is the reflexive use of detention for asylum seekers. The Majid family, they’re survivors — from what he’s describing, he’s a survivor of torture. He was detained in Iran. He is seeking freedom, in this case, in Canada, arrives in the United States and is placed back in detention. The re-traumatizing effects of being placed back in detention cannot be underestimated. You have a child who is sleeping in what was a jail cell for a maximum-security prison that has been converted, but they still leave the exposed toilet, you know, sitting in the middle of their room. There’s no privacy. With other children, he’s in a room separate from his parents. Now, but the door may be not locked at night, but that door is certainly shut, and it’s a steel heavy door. They are placed in a prison. There’s no doubt that this is a prison. And what is particularly troubling about this is that this was designed for the purpose of holding families, yet they made a conscious decision to maintain the facility as a prison, to leave the barbed wire, to leave the doors, to leave the environment as a prison.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the issue — I don’t know if you’ve found with other of your clients — given the fact that you do have young children like this, you’d think there would be some kind of process for expedited hearing to find out — have an immigration judge review the case, but they’ve been there now, what, more than two weeks now.
JOSHUA BARDAVID: Yeah, that’s definitely another troubling aspect. In order to sentence somebody in the United States to two weeks in jail, you would need to have guilt proved beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of your peers. In order for the Majit family to spend an additional two weeks in jail, it simply could take an administrative delay. This is one of the problems.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the role of these private prison companies. The Hutto facility is run by CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America. In fact, the jail is named after CCA’s co-founder, T. Don Hutto. I want to play a comment made by William Andrews, the chair of the CCA board, during a conference call with investors two weeks ago.
WILLIAM ANDREWS: I don’t want to leave anybody with the impression that these facilities that are being reported in the paper of ICE are in any way substandard. In fact, they are above standard, and the reports come from special interest groups that are attempting to do away with privatization and the whole immigration situation. And, you know, we welcome anybody to visit our facilities. And the family facility, particularly, at T. Don Hutto is almost like a home.
AMY GOODMAN: That was William Andrews, the chair of the board of the Corrections Corporation of America, describing the conditions at the Hutto jail as "almost like a home." Michelle Brane in Washington, D.C., your response?
MICHELLE BRANE: Well, as I mentioned already, and has been made very clear by your other guests, it is very clearly a prison that is being used to house inmates, and it has no resemblance to a home. I mean, there’s sofas. There are plastic sofas and TVs, but that’s about it. And one of the things that’s very disturbing about this model that they’re using is that there are alternatives. As I mentioned before, there are pre-hearing release programs that could be used.
There’s a whole range of ways to ensure that people appear for hearings, that they don’t abscond and that enforcement of our immigration laws can be accomplished without resorting to these drastic measures. And that’s one of the things that we’ve really been stressing in the report, is that, you know, as you’ve heard from the responses, in the White House response and the ICE response to our report, and to other complaints about the Hutto facility, they are presenting it as an alternative of either a facility like this or complete separation, into different buildings and different centers, of entire families. And there is a wide range of other alternatives in between those two.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. I also want to thank Majid and Kevin. And we will certainly continue to cover their story and update you on the situation. For one brief moment, because they called in in the middle of you describing your own clients, if you could briefly finish, Joshua, and then we’re going to go to Raymondville, to something that is, well, a tent city, a prison camp for immigrants in the tip of Texas. But very briefly.
JOSHUA BARDAVID: Well, my clients now, the Hazahza family, who are being held in Haskell, which is a county facility and is a maximum-security facility, this is an entire family that again is being separated in this center in extremely harsh conditions, that includes isolation of a 17-year-old, who has now turned 18, but at the time he was 17 when he was placed in solitary confinement. You have the — there is physical threats. There is strip searches as a common tool of discipline. And it is a prison. And this is an ongoing problem with intermingling immigration detainees with criminal violent offenders in the United States.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, again, the reason for their detention is they’re — are they asylum seekers?
JOSHUA BARDAVID: They were asylum seekers. They lost their asylum hearing, but the U.S. government has been unable to remove them, so they do not know what to do with them, so they placed them in this facility.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Joshua Bardavid, for joining us.