WASHINGTON - The nation's two family detention centers for illegal immigrants - one in Berks County, Pa. - are plagued by problems including inadequate medical care, lack of privacy, and abusive behavior by staff toward detainees, two advocacy groups alleged in a report being released today.
Of the two centers, the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility in Leesport has the more humane conditions, but even there detainees reported harassment by staff including the threat of separating parents from their children, the report said.
"Every woman we talked to in the facilities cried," said Michelle Brane, one of the authors of the report, prepared by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. "Many of the children were clearly sad and depressed. Some feared separation from their parents, a common threat used to ensure that children behaved according to facility rules."
Both facilities are inappropriate for children and families because they too closely resemble jails, the authors said. The detainees are largely Latinos, apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border or elsewhere in the United States, but the facilities also house immigrants from China, Greece, Ethiopia and other nations.
Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Homeland Security Department, said yesterday that the facilities were run humanely with a high standard of care for the detainees. He said allegations that staff had threatened to separate parents from their children were unsubstantiated.
The detention centers "maintain safe, secure and humane conditions and invest heavily in the welfare of the detained alien population," Raimondi said in an interview.
The report recommends a series of changes, including moving families to more homelike facilities, while seeking opportunities to parole others. It comes as the government has intensified its focus on halting illegal immigration, amid growing complaints among voters and members of Congress.
Beefed-up patrols along the Southern border and highly publicized raids by immigration officials on factories believed to hire large number of undocumented workers seem to have functioned as a powerful disincentive to illegal immigration.
Immigration authorities say the number of border arrests has dropped substantially in recent months, likely as a result of stepped-up enforcement.
The Berks facility, a former nursing home that houses about 20 immigrant families, was opened in 2001. The government opened the much larger T. Don Hutto Residential Center near Austin, Texas, last year after growing complaints from Congress that illegal immigrants apprehended by authorities were being separated from their children or were being released because there was no place to house them.
The Hutto center was more harshly criticized in the report, which said children there typically get only one hour of schooling a day. Apart from sleep, an hour of recreation and 20 minutes per mealtime, families are confined to communal areas for the bulk of the day.
Because of space constraints, children at Hutto are sometimes confined to different cells from their parents, the report said. While the doors are not locked, it said, infrared sensors trigger alarms if the doors are opened slightly, prompting a response from staff.
At the Berks facility, children under 6 typically are housed with their parents, the report said. Older children are housed in same-sex juvenile rooms with children from other families.
The report said some parents reported that their children assigned to separate rooms cry at night, but that they are not permitted to visit them.
At the Hutto facility, one woman reported she had not received a prenatal medical exam until seven months into her pregnancy. Other detainees reported delays in receiving medical care, the report said.
It said the care of pregnant women had improved at Hutto since researchers who prepared the report had visited the facility. But the report criticized Hutto for continuing to transport pregnant women to the hospital in handcuffs.
Staff at both facilities threatened to separate children from their parents as a means of control, the report said.
"All families interviewed express a general sense that they were disrespected by staff members, frequently yelled at and issued unnecessarily harsh punishments for behavior as simple as not being able to do homework for lack of a pencil," it said.
"Several families told us that facility staff would threaten them with separation if they misbehaved, and on several occasions it seems that children were sent to the secure juvenile detention facility without an opportunity to defend themselves in court."