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February 22, 2006 - Yahoo News (US)

Report: U.S. Family Immigrant Centers Like Prisons

By Adriana Garcia

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Family detention centers for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers in the United States are like prisons, where residents face harsh discipline and lack adequate health care, two advocacy groups said on Thursday.

The Women's Commission for Refugee Women & Children and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service surveyed facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania that can hold up to 600. Most of those held there are mothers and children.

"(The) Homeland Security (Department) has to look for alternative models," said Michelle Brane, director of the Women's Commission. "Families should not be split or put in something that looks like a prison."

One of the facilities, the Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas, can house 512 people. Before it opened last year, most of the families were either released from detention or separated and detained individually, the report said.

It is operated by Corrections Corporation of America under contract with Williamson County, Texas.

The center was opened in response to demands by the U.S. Congress for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to stop separating families and to seek alternative programs.

ICE said that detention facilities maintain safe, secure and humane conditions.

"Our standards of detention exceed those set by the American Correctional Association," ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi said.

But the advocacy groups said Hutto, a former criminal facility, still looks and feels like a prison, complete with razor wire and cells.

The report said children are separated from mothers as a disciplinary tool, people are confined in common areas when no activities are scheduled, and head counts are taken several times a day.

The health care and medication provided are inadequate, the report said, and there were complaints of dental care being given without anesthesia.

It also said children received only one hour of schooling daily, were often sick and subject to weight loss and that families had no more than 20 minutes for meals.

The groups said conditions were better at the smaller Berks Family Shelter in Pennsylvania, operated by Berks County.

But they said it also should be closed and alternative ways found to supervise immigrants while they await proceedings, such as using electronic monitoring bracelets, for example.

"We should not be treating immigrant families who have not committed a crime like criminals, particularly children," said Ralston Deffenbaugh, president of the Lutheran group in Baltimore.

Each immigration detainee costs taxpayers around $180 a day, the report said.

It suggested conditions would improve if family members were allowed to work, cook their own meals and sleep near each other, not in separate cells.

ICE's Raimondi said the agency looked forward to working with the groups and others "to develop additional standards related to the family detention facilities."

Full Report: Locking Up Family Values -- The Detention of Immigrant Families; from Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children & Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, 2/22/07 (.pdf)

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