Friday, December 26, 2008

Taylor Daily Press: The T. Don Hutto Question

Philip Jankowski weighed different sides of the T. Don Hutto controversy--jobs, county revenue, and the morality of detaining potential citizens-- in the Taylor Daily Press on Monday:

Today county higher ups will make their most controversial annual decision: whether or not to continue the operation of T. Don Hutto Residential Facility.

The facility draws lines in this community between those who support the detention of those who enter the country illegally and those appalled that our government would keep children in a prison.

In its third year in Taylor, the former medium-security prison is now a lightning rod for the ACLU, who accuses the facility of violating immigrants’ civil rights, and LULAC, who seeks to defend the rights of a prison population whose vast majority is Hispanic or Latino.

It is not my place to pass judgement on the facility or the policies that brought it into existence. Each side’s argument holds merit.

America is a nation of immigrants. Our economy relies on the low-cost labor of illegal immigrants. How can we hold these people behind bars?

Yet with the challenges of a country that faces psychotic insurgents hell bent on causing destruction inside our borders, how can we not detain those who enter it illegally?

Locally, the question of revenue comes to mind. The facility brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for the city and the school district. It provides well paid jobs for unskilled workers. Corrections Corporation of America has offered continued annual raises to Hutto employees at wages that are more than competitive with typical jobs that do not require a college degree.

But is the financial upside nothing more than selling our morals one tax dollar at a time?

No matter what you call it, T. Don Hutto is a prison. It has 12-foot fences strung with razor-sharp barbed wire. And it is designed for families. Not criminals. Not one immigrant currently housed there is guilty of any other crime than wanting to be an American.

To its credit, the facility has made improvements over its dubious beginnings. It has been redecorated to appear more kid friendly. Detainee turnaround has reduced greatly. Yet some of those improvements were the result of a law suit filed by the ACLU and The University of Texas Law School.

The current freedoms of the facility should have been in place at its opening. Government should not have been forced into treating these children ethically, it should have led the way.

And since then, the facility has continued to linger ominously. Immigrations Custom Enforcement continues to keep security as tight as a snare drum. Reporters are let in once annually.

Even when rarely blessed with positive press, the facility remained closed. In one instance I had a heated back and forth to get in and take a bland and benign photo of a former employee who painted cartoon caricatures on the cinder block walls. In the end, a staff member of the prison ended up taking that photo. It was pretty bad.

Maybe it’s the reporter in me, but the more I’m kept out of a place, the more I feel like something is going on inside that ICE does not want people to see.

Regardless, I do not envy the decision commissioners make today. I expect scores of protesters and people to curse the commissioners’ decision, whatever it is.