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August 28, 2007

Settlement reached in federal litigation challenging conditions at immigrant detention center

The Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the international law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae LLP have reached a proposed settlement with the federal government in a lawsuit that sought the release of immigrants and improved conditions at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. The agreement is expected to greatly improve education, recreation, medical care, and privacy conditions for immigrant children and their families inside the center.

The settlement was announced Monday, August 27, as the trial was set to open in the case. It is anticipated that Judge Sam Sparks of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas will approve the settlement, which follows months of extensive litigation and mediation in consolidated lawsuits filed last March against Michael Chertoff, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and six officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on behalf of 26 immigrant children between the ages of 1 and 17.

The Immigration Law Clinic, the ACLU, the ACLU of Texas, and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae filed the lawsuits charging that the immigrant children were being imprisoned under inhumane conditions at the detention facility with while their parents, in most cases, awaited determinations on their asylum claims.

The Immigration Law Clinic first became involved in advocacy surrounding Hutto after students in the clinic began to represent Hutto detainees last September in their individual immigration cases. Clinic students continued this work and also assisted in parts of the litigation.

Since the original lawsuits were filed in March 2007, all of the 26 children represented by the Immigration Clinic, the ACLU and co-counsel have been released. The last six children were released days before the settlement was finalized, and are now living with family members who are U.S. citizens and/or legal permanent residents while pursuing their asylum claims.

“Imprisoning families who have fled their home countries under fear of persecution from their own governments, and detaining them in jail-like conditions, was an indescribable trauma for many of the children we represented,” said Barbara Hines, Director of the Immigration Clinic. “We are hopeful that by limiting the population at Hutto to families in expedited removal except in exigent circumstances, and adopting more meaningful release procedures, that the length of stay for children will be significantly reduced.”

“Working on the Hutto litigation, I witnessed firsthand the human tragedy of detention of asylum seekers and innocent children,” said Elizabeth Wagoner, a former clinic student and recent UT Law graduate. “It was satisfying to be part of the legal battle to hold the government accountable for the treatment of these children, and to work directly with detainees to alter the conditions of their detention.”

“This is a huge victory not only for the children and families that have been released from Hutto, but for every detainee held at the facility, now or in the future,” said Vanita Gupta, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “Though we continue to believe that Hutto is an inappropriate place to house children, conditions have drastically improved in areas like education, recreation, medical care, and privacy.”

Among the improvements resulting from the litigation: children are no longer required to wear prison uniforms and are allowed much more time outdoors, educational programming has expanded, and guards have been instructed not to discipline children by threatening to separate them from their parents.

Soon after the litigation commenced, ICE instituted a policy of detaining at Hutto only families placed in expedited removal proceedings and began to issue bonds for asylum seekers who passed their credible fear interviews, the initial step in the asylum process. As a result many Hutto detainees have been released to family members in the United States.

Additional improvements ICE will be required to make as a result of the settlement include allowing children over the age of 12 to move freely about the facility; providing a full-time, on-site pediatrician; eliminating the count system so that families are not forced to stay in their cells 12 hours a day; installing privacy curtains around toilets; offering field trip opportunities to children; supplying more toys and age-and language-appropriate books; and improving the nutritional value of food. ICE must allow family and friends to visit Hutto detainees seven days a week; and allow children to keep paper and pens in their rooms. The settlement also provides for regular legal orientation presentations by local immigrants’ rights organizations. The immigration clinic plans to prepare pro se materials for detainees and participate in the orientation sessions. ICE’s compliance with each of these reforms, as well as other conditions reforms, will be subject to external oversight to ensure their permanence.

Related links:

ACLU Challenges Illegal Detention of Immigrant Children Held in Prison-Like Conditions: http://www.utexas.edu/law/news/2007/030607_aclu.html

Hutto and the ACLU’s litigation: www.aclu.org/hutto

UT Law Immigration Law Clinic: http://www.utexas.edu/law/academics/clinics/immigration/

School of Law contacts:

Professor Barbara Hines, Director of Immigration Law Clinic, 512-232-1310, bhines@law.utexas.edu

Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or kfortune@law.utexas.edu.

ACLU contacts:

Maria Archuleta, national ACLU, (212) 519-7808 or 549-2666; media@aclu.org

Amy Davis, ACLU of Texas, (512) 699-2693; adavis@aclutx.org