Above: Protesters packed the Williamson County Commissioners Court meeting.
In a victory for immigrant advocates in a conservative, law-and-order community, the Williamson County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to cut ties with a detention facility for migrant women.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to terminate the county’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CoreCivic Inc., a for-profit company that operates the 512-bed T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor. Since at least 2010, the county was party to a contractual arrangement that brought it roughly $100,000 a year.
The move was cheered by more than 100 activists who rallied in front of the Williamson County Courthouse Tuesday. Inside, the courtroom was also packed with demonstrators, from children in strollers to elderly activists, many decrying the jailing of mothers who’ve been separated from their children because of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy. Though some activists were hoping for the county to cut ties in 90 days, the minimum period required by the contract, they still praised the commissioners’ decision to pull out by January 2019.
“Every day, we work with women detained in Hutto who are frantic to be back with their children,” said Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of American Gateways, which has advocated for detainees at the shelter for more than a decade. “The action that the Williamson County Commissioners Court took today shows that they recognize the importance of keeping families together.”
The vote doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the Hutto facility, which opened in 2006 as the first for-profit family detention center in the country. ICE operates many detention facilities around the country without a county acting as middleman, and it could now do the same with Hutto. The agency must go through a lengthy rebidding process in order to do so, said Bethany Carson, immigration policy researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit that fights private prisons and has led the campaign to close the facility.
A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment on the contract termination. “Our focus at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center remains on continuing to meet our partner’s needs while maintaining our standing in the community as a good corporate citizen and employer,” said Steve Owen, managing director of communications for CoreCivic Inc., in a statement.
“Let me be clear: I’ve always believed that the women at T. Don Hutto should not be there. They are fleeing horrific living conditions,” said Commissioner Terry Cook, the the only member to speak before Tuesday’s vote. Cook also cited the threat of lawsuits the county could face by being involved with the controversial facility.
Among the commissioners voting to end the contract was Cynthia Long. In a 2007 meeting, Long rankled activists when she said that “the conditions in the facility are light-years better than what many of these people come from,” and that “unfortunately, as children, sometimes we have to suffer for the sins of our parents.” On Tuesday, she was joined in her vote by County Judge Dan Gattis and commissioners Larry Madsen and Cook. Commissioner Valerie Covey was the sole dissenting vote.
About 35 asylum-seeking mothers who were separated from their children at the border because of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy are detained at the facility, according to Grassroots Leadership. The group has pressured county officials to investigate sexual assault allegations made by detainees.
Located about 35 miles northeast of Austin, the facility was previously a jail and has long been the subject of protest and litigation from civil rights groups. In 2009, after a lawsuit exposed poor treatment of detainees, the Obama administration stopped incarcerating children at the center and converted it to a women’s lockup.
On Monday, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sent a letter to federal immigration officials detailing Monterrosa’s allegations and those of another woman who was transferred to a different detention facility last October after reporting sexual abuse at Hutto. The letter calls for new investigations into the two cases; termination of the accused guards, who both still work at Hutto; and an audit of the facility for compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
An ICE spokesperson told the Observer that the Hutto facility was the subject of a third-party PREA audit last month, but the report hasn’t been posted to ICE’s website yet and the spokesperson said she could not provide it.
“During this time of tragic immigration policies at the federal level … it is heartening to [see] the Williamson County community … stand up for the rule of heart and humane treatment of those seeking asylum in the United States,” said Lightsey.