Victory for immigrant rights advocates: ICE backs away from family detention in Texas

by Melanie Wilmoth

In 2009, immigrant rights activists successfully fought to end family detainment at the T. Don Hutto immigrant detention center in Taylor, Texas. A few weeks ago, Friends of Justice posted a blog about U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s (ICE) request for 100 new family detention beds in Texas. Many of the same activists who fought against family detention in 2009 joined forces again to keep ICE from opening a new family detention center in the state.

“Last month,” according to Grassroots Leadership, “a broad coalition of more than 65 national, state, and local immigrant, civil rights, and faith organizations called on ICE to end the practice of detaining immigrant families, including small children and infants.”

As a result of these efforts, ICE has decided not to bring family detention back to Texas. Although this is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. “This is a victory for advocacy organizations who did not want to see family detention return to Texas,” said Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership in a press release, “however, the administration should discontinue the practice of detaining families altogether and prioritize non-restrictive alternatives to detention of families.”

Activists praise ICE decision not to open new family detention center in Texas


Prior to 2009, undocumented immigrant families were detained in a private prison facility in Taylor, Texas. The T. Don Hutto Residential Center, owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), profited from a government contract to imprison undocumented families. After the ACLU of Texas sued the T. Don Hutto Center and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2007 for detaining immigrant children, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) changed its policy on family detention in Texas.

Since 2009 the only detention center in the country still housing immigrant families is the Berks County Family Shelter in Leesport, Pennsylvania. As KUT radio in Austin reported, however, in November ICE put out a request for proposals for a new 100 bed family detention center in Texas.

Now ICE has apparently backtracked on bringing family detention back to Texas. According to Frontera, after receiving four bids on a new facility, ICE reached a deal to move the Berks County facility into a new building, with annual rent going up from $300,000 to $1 million. Grassroots immigrants rights organizations from around Texas praised the decision.

In a press release Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership said that the move is a “victory for advocacy organizations” who did not want to see the detention of undocumented families return to Texas. “However, the administration should discontinue the practice of detaining families altogether and prioritize non-restrictive alternatives to detention of families,” said Libal.

Lisa Graybill, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, told the Texas Independent the decision not to create a new family detention center in Texas was a “bittersweet victory.” She went on to say that while they are pleased that ICE is not moving forward with creating new family detention beds in Texas, they wish ICE would cease family detention nationwide.

A coalition of activists including Grassroots Leadership, ACLU of Texas, and Texans United for Families, pressured ICE not to return family detention to Texas. “I think we have a fantastic coalition of grassroots advocates who made it clear to ICE that we would be very closely monitoring any family detention facility in Texas,” said Graybill. “Given its sordid record on family detention and the treatment of children, ICE should expect careful scrutiny of family detention centers wherever they are located.”

While anti-immigration activists at the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas said that if the borders were secure that facilities like these would not have to be built, Graybill stressed that there are numerous alternatives to detention that are cheaper than detention and equally effective. “Locking up innocent children does not make us safer or more free,” said Graybill. “It just transfers U.S. taxpayer resources to private detention corporations that are making an enormous profit from the detention boom. Resources used for family detention would be far better used toward combating violent crime and addressing other border issues.”

While this is a small victory, activists believe that it is just one step. “ICE’s decision not to move forward with a misguided plan to open another family detention facility in a state where its last such facility failed so miserably illustrates the power of grassroots advocacy and communities coming together to oppose the expansion of private prison beds and immigration detention,” said Graybill. “We will keep pushing until we end family detention.”