Officials' Silence Speaks Loudly at Hutto Forum

A forum on the T. Don Hutto immigrant-detention center will go on despite no participation from Hutto supporters

A snub by authorities – invited to participate in a public forum to field concerns about the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor – has fueled the ire of immigrant rights panelists who will convene this week at the Georgetown Public Library. Funded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforce­ment, operated by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America, and administered by Williamson Co. Commissioners Court, the T. Don Hutto facility has been excoriated the world over for incarcerating noncriminal immigrant families – including infants – awaiting deportation decisions, as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's professed "endgame" strategy to expel virtually all undocumented immigrants by 2012.

Panelists – who've protested Hutto since WilCo (for a cut off the top) signed on with ICE and CCA in 2006 – will include Bob Lib­al, Texas coordinator of Grassroots Leadership, a group that wants for-profit prisons abolished; Barbara Hines, director of the UT Immi­gra­tion Clinic and co-counsel in a successful lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liber­ties Union against the federal government to improve Hutto living conditions; Wayne Krause, legal director of the Austin office of the Texas Civil Rights Project; and Taylor resident Jose Orta, president of League of United Latin American Citizens Council 4721.

Immigration Reform Effort founder MaryEllen Kersch, former mayor of Georgetown, conceived the forum to allow the public to confront Hutto authorities. However, as Kersch told the Chronicle, a three-hour conversation with U.S. Rep. John Carter's aide, Jonas Miller, was futile. "Miller related that the congressman is completely supportive of Hutto in every aspect," Kersch said. Another lengthy meeting with WilCo Judge Dan Gattis offered hope. Though afraid of an "ambush," according to Kersch, Gattis "was still open to a discussion." Sweetening the pot, Kersch offered to scrap the "pro" and "con" format and screen audience questions. Still, no dice – Gattis would skip the forum and stand by ICE and CCA, whose officials sent apologies that they wouldn't attend.

For his part, Orta is not surprised by the no-shows. Officials prefer to "do all their business shrouded in a web of secrecy," Orta said. Indeed, the only time county and CCA officials publicly defended T. Don Hutto at any length was in court on Oct. 9, 2007. ICE had ordered the county to ensure that surveillance equipment was operated in the wake of an alleged sexual assault, which had commissioners worrying about liability and second-guessing the contract. Video clips published on ChildreninJail.com show Commissioner Cynthia Long sermonizing, "As children, sometimes we have to suffer with the sins of our parents"; Commissioner Ron Morrison offering, "What I saw [at Hutto] was ... better treatment than maybe our own kids get at home"; and Gattis urging CCA to hurry up and assess county liability, because, "I don't want everybody in this courtroom every week seeing what we're going to do." The contract stood because CCA promised the county legal protection.

As disappointing as it is that Hutto authorities refuse to face the music – and take responsibility for reported abuses – by attending the panel, Immigration Reform Effort panelists believe the show must go on. "Officials' refusal to even talk about this situation ... looks a lot like a guilty admission of wrongdoing," said TCRP's Krause. "Many issues raised are going unanswered. This discussion is way past due."

The public forum is scheduled to take place Wednesday, Sept. 24, 7pm, at the Georgetown Public Library, 402 W. Eighth, in Georgetown.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Immigration Reform Effort, MaryEllen Kersch, T. Don Hutto Residential Center, ACLU, Texas Civil Rights Project

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