HS and Refugees: Housing Resembles Jail

In response to the criticism of international human rights groups about the inhumane conditions in which refugees are kept, Homeland Security and ICE have made a weak attempt to change their policies.

The day Mustafa Elmi turned 3 years old he had to report to his cell three times for headcount. To be able to get one hour of recreation inside a concrete compound sealed off by metal gates and razor wire he had to pin his picture ID to his uniform.

Such routines characterized Mustafa’s life, as well as that of his mother, Bahjo Hosen, 26, during their first seven months in the United States, the country to which they fled to escape political persecution in their native Somalia. They ended up in the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, one of the nation’s newest detention centers for illegal immigrants that the Department of Homeland Security touts as an “effective and humane alternative” to keep immigrant families together while they await the outcome of immigration court hearings or deportation.

Before the facility opened, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) routinely separated parents from their children upon apprehension by the Border Patrol. Infants and toddlers were placed in federally funded foster homes; adolescents and teenagers were placed in facilities for minors run by the Department of Health and Human Services; and parents were placed in adult detention centers.

An improvement, right? Well, maybe.

Despite the change in policy, two national organizations decry the conditions at Hutto and have termed the facility “a penal detention model that is fundamentally anti-family and anti-American.”

The center, which the DHS opened last May, is an unacceptable method “for addressing the reality of the presence of families in our immigration system,” says a report written by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, in New York, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, in Baltimore, and scheduled for release Thursday.

“As a country that supports family values, we should not be treating immigrant families who have not committed a crime like criminals, particularly children,” said Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr., president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

That similarity to prison life may be explained by the fact that HS farmed out the management of its refugee facilities to yet another private contractor, one that specializes in – wait for it – building and managing prisons.

During a tour of Hutto this month, Gary Mead, the assistant director of ICE detention and removal operations, said the facility, which is operated under contract by the Corrections Corporation of America, averaged 380 to 420 detainees daily. That day, Hutto housed 180 children and 150 adults — four-fifths of them mothers — from 29 countries. Seventy-five families were being detained while they awaited the outcome of their political-asylum petitions.

The 512-bed facility is part of the Department of Homeland Security’s year-long push to build detention centers or contract them out to private companies to accommodate illegal immigrants apprehended along the Mexican border. A record 26,500 such immigrants are in detention daily — up from 19,718 a day in 2005.

Five hundred beds doesn’t make a dent in a population of 26,000+, and the system is already stretched to the breaking point like everything else that relies on Federal money to function in the Age of Bush. Privatization means corners are being cut in every conceivable way to boost profits, and hiring a prison management corporation to handle refugees means the facilities get treated like prisons because that’s what the company is set up to do.

One suspects that there are far fewer “family-friendly” facilities than HS is hinting there are, and that Hutto is basically a photo-op facility that exists to show critics. Cherthoff’s history – and the Bush Administration’s history, come to that – leads one to expect that if the criticism could be muffled and critics made to look the other way, the “family friendly” effort would vanish altogether or let the facilities decline into outright jails. The only thing that ever keeps these people on the stick is constant press attention, and there’s been precious little of that the last 6 years.

Cherthoff and the Bushies are much more comfortable treating people like criminals than in any humanistic way. Empathy and respect have never been hallmarks of their attitude toward people in trouble, whether refugees or simply because they’re poor, and one no longer expects them. The only thing you can do with them is watch them like a hawk and get on them every time they try to bail.

Sad that we have come to this but that’s where we are. Keep the pressure on and don’t let them turn their backs or the refugee families will be housed in 3×5 cells because it’s cheaper for the contractor.

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