updated 2/22/2007 3:30:10 PM ET 2007-02-22T20:30:10

Advocacy groups for immigrant families and the Department of Homeland Security are at odds over detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania that critics argue are inhumanely housing adults and young children in jail-like conditions.

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In a report released Thursday, groups speaking for immigrants demanded the immediate closure of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center north of Austin, the Texas capital, a facility that once was a jail.

The advocacy groups _ the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services _ said they based their complaints on visits to these sites by their members and interviews with detainees.

At the Hutto site, their report said, a child secretly passed a visitor a note that read: “Help us and ask us questions,” it said. The groups reported that many of the detainees cried during interviews.

“What hits you the hardest in there is that it’s a prison. In Hutto, it’s a prison,” said Michelle Brane, detention and asylum project director for Women’s Commission.

‘Safe, secure and humane conditions’
At a news conference, the groups charged that some families are kept up to two years in the facilities, with those petitioning for asylum or trying to prove they shouldn’t be deported, remaining there the longest.

“We are taking people who fear persecution and locking them up,” said Ralston H. Deffenbaugh, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

The Homeland Security Department defended the centers as a workable solution to the problem of illegal immigrants being released, only to disappear while awaiting hearings. Also, they deter smugglers who endanger children, said Mark Raimondi, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the DHS division that oversees detention facilities.

“ICE’s detention facilities maintain safe, secure and humane conditions and invest heavily in the welfare of the detained alien population,” Raimondi said.

‘Less jail-like’
White House press secretary Tony Snow said last week that finding facilities for families is difficult, and “you have to do the best with what you’ve got. “

The Pennsylvania center — the Berks County Shelter Care Facility — has about 84 beds and the Texas facility can house up to 512 people. The groups fear that government will expand detentions in similar facilities.

The facility in Leesport, Pa., about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is a former nursing home and “less jail-like,” allowing families to go on field trips and having a better education system for children. But it also has problems, the groups said. It is part of a larger juvenile facility housing U.S. citizens charged with or convicted of crimes and detained juveniles.

The groups suggested that immigration officials release families who are not found to be a security risk, and said the federal government should consider less punitive alternatives to the detention centers, such as parole, electronic bracelets and shelters run by nonprofit groups.

“Unless there’s some crime or some danger, families don’t belong in detention,” Deffenbaugh said. “This whole idea of trying to throw kids and their parents in a penal-like situation is destructive of all the normal family relationships we take for granted.”

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