TAYLOR, Tex. -- 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.
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.
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.
Hutto, located in central Texas, is used for immigrants from countries other than Mexico who are awaiting "expedited removal from the United States." That process ended the policy known as "catch and release," in which such people were given a notice to appear later before an immigration judge. Mexican nationals caught in the United States illegally are routinely sent back almost immediately.
For some years, ICE has contracted with Berks County, Pa., to run an 80-bed detention facility for families, and the report by the women's commission and Lutheran service touched on that center but focused on the much larger Hutto.
The report lauded the goal of keeping families together but urged DHS to close the Hutto facility, saying that "prison-like institutions" are not appropriate for families. "Family detention is not one that has any precedent in the United States, therefore no appropriate licensing requirements exist," the report said.
In response, ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi said that the Hutto and Berks facilities "maintain safe, secure and humane conditions and invest heavily in the welfare" of the detainees. He said that ICE detention standards exceed those set by the American Correctional Association, and that the agency's practice of conducting annual reviews and weekly visits to detention facilities "significantly exceeds industry standards."
The report recommended that ICE parole asylum-seekers while they await the outcome of their hearings. It also said that immigrant families not eligible for parole should be released to special shelters or other homelike settings run by nonprofit groups and be required to participate in electronic monitoring or an intensive supervision program that would use a combination of electronic ankle bracelets, home visits and telephone reporting.
The 72-page report also criticized the educational services for children; the food service and rushed feeding times for children; the health care, especially for vulnerable children and pregnant women; the therapeutic mental health care as insufficient or culturally inappropriate; and the recreation time as inadequate for children. The review said that families were being held for months in Hutto and for years in the case of the longer-established Berks facility.
The report also cited inappropriate disciplinary practices used against adults and children, including threats of separation, verbal abuse and withholding recreation or using temperature control, particularly extremely cold conditions, as punishment.
Hosen, who traveled with Mustafa on an inner tube across the Rio Grande from Mexico and insisted that a stranger in Texas call the Border Patrol so she could surrender to authorities, lived in Hutto from June 30 to Jan. 30.
Granted political asylum and now living temporarily in a home for immigrant women and children in Austin, Hosen said that she and other parents in Hutto were threatened regularly with separation from their children for minor infractions such as youngsters running inside the prison. She lost 30 pounds while detained, and her son lost weight and suffered from diarrhea. Concerned about her son's health, Hosen asked for a multivitamin for him but was denied the request, she said.
She recalled that the day she and Mustafa arrived at Hutto and she saw the word "residential" written on the facility's sign, she was relieved after having spent almost two weeks in a detention center for adults in south Texas while her son was held in foster care. Hosen said that although she was reunited with him, little else changed. "It was just like the place I was -- detention -- nothing different," she said.