Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Least of These

Last Thursday I went to a screening at the law school of "The Least of These," ( a documentary film about T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a controversial family detention center in Taylor, Texas, for immigrant families awaiting asylum hearings or deportation screenings. Specifically, the film focuses on the efforts of a UT law professor and immigration attorney, Barbara Hines, to address the prison-like facilities that were housing these families, including children. The film can be viewed for free on its website and can also be found on Netflix. I encourage anyone to see it.

The crux of the issue at Hutto is as follows: sick of the "catch and release" policies on immigration, where an undocumented immigrant was instructed to appear at court and sometimes would not, the Bush administration began detaining these people until their asylum or immigration hearings. Because many of the people crossing our borders came as families, the concern was then how to keep families together within this new paradigm of detention. This is how the Hutto Center began. In what was formerly a medium-security prison, the largest private prison operator in the country, CCA, was contracted by our government to create a family detention center. This poses the obvious problem of keeping children in a prison-like, or actually, a prison environment. The legal problem for Professor Hines, her students, and her colleagues, was whether the facilities complied with the federal standards of housing children, but there is also the larger moral problem of detaining children. One official at CCA lamented that unfortunately sometimes children pay for the crimes of their parents, but in our just society, is this an assumption we should be so willing to accept? The legal question was within the jurisdiction of Professor Hines and her students and colleagues but there was always that larger moral question lingering throughout the film.

The Least of These is inspirational, heartwarming, and heartbreaking. I initially heard about this project from a New Yorker article published about a year and a half ago ( and I was reminded of the story when it was mentioned at the admitted student days I attended in Austin last March. I remember when I first read the article being so impressed that law students' work could have real-life results. Professor Hines was teaching an immigration law clinic at UT so her students became intimately involved with the case. Hearing the story of Hutto and the efforts of Professor Hines, her students, and other attorneys that became involved in the case made me proud to be a part of an institution that is willing to speak for those marginalized in the legal system - I have been here for only a month but this sense of responsibility of lawyers, that relatively small subsection of the population who is trained to understand and interpret the law, is very apparent in the legal education here at UT.

I don't need to summarize the film further but there are a couple of scenes that stuck out for me. In one case, a family from Iran had escaped persecution to Canada, and their son was born in Canada, making him a citizen. The parents, however, were denied asylum in Canada and the family was sent back to Iran, where the parents were tortured and eventually paid for forged papers to return to Canada with their nine-year-old son. On the way to Toronto, a passenger died on their flight so the plane was redirected to land in Puerto Rico, where the false documents were discovered and the family was detained at Hutto. While there, the family (and other families at Hutto) were forced to have their child present for meetings with their attorneys, where the parents recounted the horrific stories of torture in Iran. The mother and father had hoped to shield their son from the traumatic knowledge of this past, but he was present for these meetings for asylum, and learned of the abuse his parents endured. This aspect was among the most heartbreaking for me. The hope that the parents could shield their young son from the knowledge of the torture inflicted in their home country was shattered in Hutto. It is such a fundamental parental instinct to protect their children and yet at Hutto, the freedom of such an attempt at protection was stripped.

Another scene that stuck out was towards the end of the film. A young mother, pregnant with her fourth child, escaped from her abuser, the father of the children, to America. She had scars on her face from the machete he assaulted her with, and she was forced to leave her eldest daughter behind with the abuser, who held the child at knife point while the pregnant mother and the two youngest girls fled. The mother, her two girls, and now infant baby were released from Hutto recently and the oldest of the girls, probably about six, was being interviewed for the film. She said how she was amazed by the beauty of Houston, a statement which, while there was hardly a dry eye in the audience I was among, still elicited a chuckle. The interviewer asked her more specifically what was so beautiful about life outside Hutto, in Houston. The girl replied (I am paraphrasing): There's a place called McDonald's, which is so beautiful, and has a big toy where you can slide down into a pool of balls.

Such innocence and sadness accompanied this statement by the young girl.

The title of the film comes from a passage in Matthew, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." I am proud to be at a school and in a country that believes in the possible embodiment of this statement through our legal system.

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