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Detained families' housing decried

Advocates say US holds immigrants at 2 jail-like sites

Detainees at T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, which advocacy groups want the government to stop using for immigrant housing. The groups said yesterday that a child secretly passed a visitor a note reading: "Help us and ask us questions." The Hutto center, a former jail, can house up to 512 people. (charles reed/department of homeland security via associated press)

WASHINGTON -- Advocacy groups for immigrant families and the Department of Homeland Security are at odds over detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania that critics argue are inhumanely housing adults and young children in jail-like conditions.

In a report released yesterday, groups speaking for immigrants demanded the immediate closure of T. Don Hutto Residential Center north of Austin, a facility that once was a jail.

The advocacy groups -- the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services -- said they based their complaints on visits to these sites and interviews with detainees.

At the Hutto site, their report said, a child secretly passed a visitor a note that read: "Help us and ask us questions," it said. The groups reported that many of the detainees cried during interviews.

"What hits you the hardest in there is that it's a prison. In Hutto, it's a prison," said Michelle Brane, director of the detention and asylum project for the Women's Commission.

At a news conference, the groups alleged that some families are kept up to two years in the facilities and that those petitioning for asylum or trying to prove they shouldn't be deported are forced to stay there the longest.

"We are taking people who fear persecution and locking them up," said Ralston H. Deffenbaugh, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

The Homeland Security Department defended the centers as a workable solution to the problem of illegal immigrants who are released then disappear while awaiting hearings. Also, the centers deter smugglers who endanger children, said Mark Raimondi, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security division that oversees detention facilities.

"ICE's detention facilities maintain safe, secure, and humane conditions and invest heavily in the welfare of the detained alien population," Raimondi said.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said last week that finding facilities for families is difficult, and "you have to do the best with what you've got."

The Pennsylvania center, the Berks County Shelter Care Facility, has 84 beds, and the Texas facility can house up to 512 people. The groups fear the government will expand detentions in similar facilities.

The facility in Leesport, Pa., about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is a former nursing home and "less jail-like," the groups said . It allows families to go on field trips and has a better education system for children. But it also has problems, the groups said. It is part of a larger juvenile facility housing US citizens charged with or convicted of crimes and detained juveniles.

The groups suggested that immigration officials release families not found to be a security risk. They said the federal government should consider less punitive alternatives to the detention centers, such as parole, electronic bracelets, and shelters run by nonprofit groups.

"Unless there's some crime or some danger, families don't belong in detention," Deffenbaugh said. "This whole idea of trying to throw kids and their parents in a penal-like situation is destructive of all the normal family relationships we take for granted."