Thursday, April 24, 2008

The 'real tour' of ICE's PR media showcase

From the Houston Chronicle:

Imprisoned families: on the real tour

...The family-friendly reforms come after more than a year of harsh media
spotlight, tireless efforts by The Women's Commission for Refugee Women
and Children and a pile of lawsuits brought by the ACLU of Texas.

Yet, as immigration officials ushered reporters through the facility
this week to show off their progress, one high-ranking ICE official
tried to claim that the changes would have happened without the

"Everything that was included in that settlement was either done prior
to the settlement, in progress during the settlement or contemplated
prior to the settlement," Gary Mead, ICE's acting director for
detention and removal, was quoted saying in an Associated Press story.

Mead is the same guy who told me early last year - when Hutto's fence
was still rimmed in razor wire and immigrant kids were still issued
uniforms, counted three times a day and subjected to substandard
education and health care - that his agency had already made the former
prison as homelike as it could.

"I think we've done a very good job of softening things to make it as
family-friendly as we can," Mead told me in February 2007.

That doesn't sound like a reform-minded official intent on pushing for
major changes.

A month after Mead's 2007 comments, the Texas chapter of the American
Civil Liberties Union filed 10 lawsuits against the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, alleging inhumane conditions
that violated virtually every provision in a 1997 settlement protecting
immigrant minors and defied Congress' directive to jail children as a
last resort.

Without the lawsuit, an earlier critical report by the Women's
Commission on conditions, and media coverage all along the way, would
Mead and other officials at ICE have seen the light on their own? I
doubt it.

The changes represent what ICE failed to do from the beginning:
Establish a humane environment fit for children. Hutto, which opened in
May 2006, operated for eight months before media started asking real
questions and two years before Hutto was fit for this week's media

Of course, Mead's recent comments to reporters may be nothing more than
public relations spin, a federal agency trying to cover its hide. The
comments are harmless, as long as ICE officials don't really believe

The agency should acknowledge its mistakes and see that without
monitoring and questioning and cajoling from outside groups, Hutto
wouldn't have reached this point on its own. Those outside voices will
be crucial in future projects as well.

Mead told reporters that ICE is considering opening more facilities to
detain families around the country, using Hutto as a model.

Opening more family detention facilities is a troubling prospect in and
of itself, considering that ICE has been specifically instructed by
congressional appropriations committees to prioritize alternatives,
such as effective, less-expensive electronic monitoring.

But one can only hope the mistaken model of converting a former prison
into a "homelike" environment won't be duplicated.