AUSTIN - An immigrant advocacy group, Grassroots Leadership, has been trying for at least 10 years to get the federal government to close the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, where immigrant women seeking asylum are detained.
The group wants it closed, claiming there are inhumane conditions there including sexual abuse of detainees, inadequate food and medical care, and forced labor. Immigration Customs and Enforcement officials have long said that detention ensures the immigrants show up for hearings and that it has an aggressive inspection program to make sure detainees are safe in a humane environment.
A spokeswoman for Grassroots Leadership, as well as a University of Texas immigration expert, said that with President Joe Biden in office, they have new hope the center in Taylor might be closed.
"The president ran his campaign promising to really create a humane pathway for all people coming to the United States," said Maria Reza, a spokeswoman for GrassRoots Leadership. "We want to put pressure on the Biden administration to actually follow through on his promise to give some dignity to all immigrants here living in the U.S."
Denise Gilman, the co-director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, said there several factors "coming together that make it possible to imagine that Hutto will be shut down; that all immigration detention centers will be shut down."
One of those factors is that the number of people in immigrant detention facilities is low across the country, she said, partly because of court orders that urged detention centers to release people to protect their health during the coronavirus pandemic. The restrictive border policies that were in place during the Trump administration also did not allow the normal number of asylum seekers to come into the country, she said. The recent surge of children and teenagers requesting asylum at the Texas border should not affect the number of people in detention centers because unaccompanied children are held in licensed shelters and not ICE detention centers, she said. Another factor that Gilman said gives her hope is that Biden has announced he's not going to renew contracts with private companies that run prisons and jails for people who have committed criminal offenses.
Biden hasn't said much about immigration detention centers, but has talked about new policy directions that would consider immigration to be a normal process that benefits the country "so we don't have to look at it from enforcement/deportation and detainment lenses," Gilman said.
The T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor holds women who have requested asylum when they reach the Mexico border. CoreCivic, a private company, has a contract with Immigration Customs and Enforcement to operate the facility.
CoreCivic and ICE did not respond this week to requests for information about how many women are currently held at the center. ICE signed a $260 million contract with CoreCivic in 2020 to operate the center for 10 years.
But immigrant advocates want it closed as soon as possible. The Detention Watch Center, a national coalition to abolish immigration detention in the U.S., announced this week a campaign to get Biden in his first year in administration to shut down 10 immigrant detention centers across the nation, including the one in Taylor. "Advocates have long documented widespread abuse at Hutto, including a serious pattern of sexual assault and harassment by facility guards," a report by the network said.
This week, Grassroots and the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic released a report they co-authored called "Cruelty and Corruption: Contracting to Lock Up Immigrant Women for Profit at the Hutto Detention Center."
The report alleges that women are abused at the center, including being given inadequate amounts of food, being forced to work and being sexually abused. It also alleges that the 10-year contract ICE signed with CoreCivic violates federal law. "The main immigration statute that authorizes contracting for detention space does not authorize direct agreements between the federal government and a private entity," the report said.
ICE officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but a spokesperson said in an email that she was referring the report to the federal agency's legal department.
Ryan Gustin, the manager of public affairs for CoreCivic, said in an email that "it's unfortunate that critics attack the benefits we provide without themselves offering any solutions to the serious challenges our country faces on immigration."
"It's also unfortunate that a wholly unsubstantiated, anecdotal 'report' from a group whose sole purpose is to end our industry is taken at face value, while scores of official independent audits that demonstrate the quality of our services are ignored," Gustin said.
"CoreCivic cares deeply about every person in our care, and we work hard to provide a safe, humane and appropriate environment for them each day."
Gilman said there is an alternative to the detention centers.
The women being held at the T. Don Hutto have friends and family willing to support them while the women await the outcome of their asylum cases, Gilman said.
CoreCivic first operated the facility as a prison from 1997 to 2004 and then converted it into an immigrant detention center for families in 2006, the report from Grassroots and the UT immigration law clinic said. The company converted the facility to a women's center in 2009.
In 2010, a CoreCivic employee at the detention center was accused of sexually assaulting multiple detained women and later was convicted, the report said.
It said that in 2017, the FBI investigated allegations of sexual abuse of detainees by guards. A class action federal lawsuit was filed by a former detainee at the center in 2018 alleging that CoreCivic was violating the federal Trafficking Victims and Protection Act by forcing labor on those in the center.
The lawsuit is still pending after CoreCivic's request to dismiss it was denied by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in a judgment on Jan. 20.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 imposes civil liability on "whoever knowingly provides or obtains the labor or services of a person" by certain coercive means, the judgment said.
"CoreCivic claims its work programs categorically fall outside the reach of this forced-labor prohibition," the judgment said. "But the text of the Act contains no such detainee-labor exemption."
Sulma Franco, 33, participated in a rally on Wednesday outside the detention center where protesters called for the facility be closed.
Franco said she still remembers the five months she spent in 2010 in detention at the Taylor facility while seeking asylum after fleeing Guatemala.
"Some of my colleagues were really sick and didn't get to see the doctor because they had to submit a request, and that request would take two weeks," said Franco, who spoke through an interpreter.
Franco now lives in Austin, works for Grassroots Leadership and has founded a group of formerly detained immigrant women called Mujeres Luchadoras.
She said she doesn't believe the Biden administration will close the T. Don Hutto center because politicians "truly really don't care."
"i really believe it is the women who are deliberately impacted who have to lead groups and organize," she said. "We are the ones who can elevate our voices."