DALLAS An 8-year-old girl was separated from her pregnant mother and left behind for four days at a detention center established to keep immigrant families together while their cases are processed.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they had to transfer the Honduran woman Oct. 18 because she was potentially disruptive, having twice resisted attempts to deport her.
ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said guards and ICE staff watched over the child after her mother was removed from the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, a former central Texas prison where immigrant families with no criminal records are held while their cases are processed.
People who want the facility closed, contending it puts children in prisonlike conditions, say the agency put the girl at risk.
"Here, it's the government itself that has the custody of this child and then leaves her without proper supervision," said Denise Gilman, who oversees the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, which provides legal services to Hutto detainees. "We certainly don't want to see it happen again."
The 28-year-old woman, who was about seven months pregnant at the time, and her daughter lost a bid for asylum; they were reunited when they were sent back to Honduras. Immigration Clinic attorneys plan to file a complaint with the federal government.
The woman's sister, Irma Banegas of Fort Worth, said her sister and niece told her they cried inconsolably after they were awakened and separated.
"They've never been apart," she said.
Banegas said the pair fled Honduras earlier this year to escape an abusive relationship and growing gang violence in that country, including attacks that broke her sister's ribs and left her with scars. She asked that her sister and niece not be named because of concerns for their safety.
The girl and her mother had traveled from El Balsamo, Honduras, to Mexico and then crossed by boat into South Texas, where they were apprehended in August. They were held for about two months.
The agency attempted to deport the woman twice in October, but she wouldn't comply. ICE officials didn't reveal specifics about her efforts to resist deportation. But as a result, Rusnok said, she was considered a high risk for disruptive behavior and moved from Hutto to a South Texas detention center in Pearsall.
During the separation, the girl continued her regular routine at Hutto and "felt comfortable and safe," Rusnok said in a statement.
"Such family separations at Hutto are extremely rare. ICE personnel took extraordinary care to minimize family disruption and separation time," Rusnok said.
Advocates said detainees who endanger themselves or others should be removed, but decry the lack of guidelines for transferring or punishing troublemakers.
A lawsuit over conditions at Hutto was settled in August. Immigration officials agreed to changes including privacy curtains around toilets, a full-time pediatrician and dropping rules that required families to be in their cells 12 hours a day.