Bastrop couples bring mercy to T. Donn Hutto Center

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

Knowing that visiting the imprisoned is a Work of Mercy, when Edgar and Ileana Díaz read in a Spanish-language newspaper that Grassroots Leadership was offering training to visit women who are detained at the T. Don Hutto Center in Taylor, the couple jumped at the chance to help. They invited close friends Virgil and Margaret Almogabar to join them. The two couples, parishioners at Ascension Parish in Bastrop, are now regulars at the center near Taylor.
“The majority of women are Catholic and from Latin America,” Edgar said. “We are assigned someone and when we go we ask for them by name. We don’t always know if they will be there or if they have been moved.”
What they do know is that volunteers are the only visitors these women have.
“As Pope Francis says, we need to attend to the poor face-to-face,” Virgil said. “We are full of different ministries, which isn’t a bad thing. But we need to act, not just get filled with information.”
Sofia Casini, detention visitation coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, said the program began in 2009 when Hutto was a family detention center for undocumented immigrants. About 150 volunteers have been trained for visits.
Due to community pressure, including vigils and protests by church groups and the University of Texas Social Justice Institute, it was closed and then reopened six months later as an all-female facility by Corrections Corporation of America, the for-profit corporation that runs the facility on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.
Because visitation rules are strict, training is required so as not to jeopardize the program. For example, visitors cannot wear sleeveless blouses. Pens, papers and cell phones are not allowed. Proselytizing is prohibited.
However, religious services are allowed. About 25 members of the Social Justice Ministry at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Taylor have been ministering to the mainly-Catholic women for years, said Father Jairo Sandoval-Pliego, the pastor.
“That was already in place by the time I got here in 2013,” said Father Pliego, who succeeded Father Efrain Villanueva, now at St. Elizabeth Parish in Pflugerville.
Deacon Alfredo Torres oversees the volunteers. Father Pliego said Mass is celebrated every Saturday morning at the center, which has a capacity of 492. The parish has help from nearby parishes, including St. William in Round Rock and St. Helen in Georgetown.
“We get from 150 to 500 ladies,” he said. “This includes Baptists and Pentecostals.”
Volunteers lead the rosary on Tuesdays and a charismatic prayer group on Thursdays.
The rules are very strict for church volunteers, Father Pliego said. They are subject to background and ID checks, which must be updated every three months. They also must attend the diocesan Ethics and Integrity in Ministry program.
“It’s a different kind of sadness,” Father Pliego said. “It’s not just about being in jail. It’s about all they have to endure –– abuse of all kinds. Only the Lord knows why there are here after so many struggles.”
Many immigrants – female and male – experience rape during their trek to the border. Ileana said they listen to the stories if the women want to share them. However, it’s hard to develop relationships because the women are often moved elsewhere after a few months.
“Except for two or three, they have all gone,” she said. 
The beds don’t remain empty for long. The couples believe it’s because CCA receives $95.20 a day per person and the contract with CCA also requires the government to keep the beds at least 90 percent full. The Hutto center is luxurious compared to other centers. They said many immigrants tell of being in frigid conditions in some centers –– calling them “la hielera” –– or the freezer. 
Virgil said one woman told him of coming from Laredo, where they had to sleep on dirty floors.
“Nobody cares about them,” Margaret said.
The volunteers do care and make sure the women are not abused or have their rights violated. If they have, volunteers can tell Grassroots, which has attorneys willing to advocate on behalf of the detainees, Casini said.
One woman who went on a hunger strike to protest conditions was placed in solitary confinement until they learned of her fate. That’s also how they learned about one guard who would violate the women as he was driving them to be deported.
While detainees can receive phone calls, the caller must know their name and detainee number. But they can be here one day and gone the next –– often in the wee hours of the morning with no notification. Most women are moved around 2 a.m. with no prior notification.
Volunteers don’t know if the women have been moved elsewhere or if they found a sponsor to pay the thousands of dollars in bond to be released. In rare cases, Father Pliego said, they are set free with humanitarian visas.
Edgar and Ileana Díaz understand why the immigrants risk life and limb to come to this country. She was born in Nicaragua and he in Guatemala. 
“I was illegal,” Edgar said. “I lived through those moments. It was much easier back then.”
They know the drug cartels and the street gangs are destroying families in Central and South America.
“These women haven’t committed any crimes,” Edgar said. “They’re just looking for a better life.”
Grassroots Leadership will hold its next volunteer training and orientation in Spanish on Nov. 12 from 2 to 4 p.m. and in English on Nov. 19 from 2 to 4 p.m. To attend or for more information, call (512) 499-8111 and ask for Victoria.