Last year, the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility opened on the grounds of a former state prison in Taylor, Texas. This facility is used as a detention center for immigrant families being considered for deportation or asylum in the United States. It is operated (for a profit) by the Corrections Corporation of America under contract from an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
Recently, much light has been shed on the facility due to the plight of Palestinian businessman Salaheddin Ibrahim’s family. The Ibrahims came on valid visas to the United States in 2001, seeking asylum on grounds that they could no longer face beatings and harassment at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Having no place to go after their request was rejected, they remained in the United States.
Last November, the family was suddenly taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. While Sala-heddin was taken to a separate facility, his pregnant wife and four of his children were held at the Hutto facility.
After their story reached mainstream media, a groundswell of protest compelled the authorities to release the Ibrahims and reconsider their request for asylum, in part on the grounds that the situation in the Palestinian territories has significantly deteriorated. The protest has focused not only on the Ibrahims’ situation, but on reports that the facility itself is inhumane and entirely inappropriate for children.
These reports detail insufficient medical care, such as children losing weight as a result of unhealthy food and rashes and skin irritations due to unsanitary conditions. Women have been sent outside in 40 degree weather in nothing but short-sleeve uniforms, and children are only allowed one hour of play outside each day.
Furthermore, the children are given minimal schooling, much of it inadequate. On release, the Ibrahim’s 15-year-old son Hamzeh said, “I’m a sophomore in high school, and they were trying to teach things like ABCs.”
There have also been reports of threats such as separation of children from their parents. In the case of the Ibrahim’s 5-year-old daughter, Faten, it came to light in court papers that she was threatened and yelled at for not standing still during head counts.
Wanting to see for ourselves, four members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee visited two of the families being held at the facility. Two of us spoke with a family of Arab origin that asked to remain anonymous, and two of us visited the Rirarche family from Somalia.
One of the immediate things that struck us was the extent to which the guards seemed unable to comprehend our interest in the families or their well-being. Our visit did not last long. We were summarily kicked out when we tried to give one of the Somali children the number of someone they could call for legal help and asked the guard for a pencil. We were told the children weren’t allowed to have such things in the visitation booth.
We learned more about the other family’s situation. In addition to suffering the recent death of one of her sons, the mother was living off of lettuce, since the facility refused to provide her with the food she needed for her medical condition. Fortunately, in the wake of the affair with the Ibrahims, this family was also released earlier this month.
Having only momentarily touched the lives of these two families and hearing the story of a few others, we have to wonder what other stories remain untold in Hutto. In a 512-bed facility, how many more families lay hidden in the shadows, forced to wear prison uniforms, surrounded by barbed wire, divided and uncertain of their future?
We in the Palestine Solidarity Committee have committed ourselves to the goal of shutting down this and all such facilities in the United States, in accordance with a just revision of immigration and amnesty laws.
Naser, a psychology junior, and Garmon, a physics graduate student, are members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee. Daily Texan