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The Least of These - Festival Edition

(US DVD: 13 Sep 2009)

A Family Matter

The Least of These offers a glimpse into the lives of families of illegal immigrants who, for the last few years, had been detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas prior to it’s shuttering in Spetember, 2009. Before it’s closing, Hutto was a peculiar creature. It housed many families, but was never anything approaching a home to any of them. People lived in cells under the supervision of guards within it’s walls, but it was never quite a prison. Indeed, Hutto never housed any person who had been convicted of a crime.


Instead, for the three years of it’s operation, Hutto put a face of family togetherness on the harsh immigration policies of the Bush administration. Having abandoned the so called ‘catch and release’ policy that saw illegal immigrants required to report for a court date following their initial arrest, the policy of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement turned to detainment, holding illegal immigrants indefinitely until they could be their cases could be decided by a judge.


As harsh as this policy may seem when applied to an individual, when it resulted in the separation of parents from their children as it frequently did, it could not fail to appear anything but draconian. It was nowhere near as draconian as the administration’s solution, which was to place whole families together in detention, as they did in the T. Don Hutto Residential Center just miles outside of Austin, Texas.


Hutto was operated not by the State of Texas, or ICE, or the Department of Homeland Security, but by the Corrections Corporation of America, and therein may lie it’s main problem. The interests that oversaw it had nothing to do with the interests of those detained there. Guards and security personnel were on hand not there to discover which families are in need of asylum, but to make a buck.


Providing prenatal care to pregnant detainees is the right thing to do, but there’s no fiscal upside to it. That’s presumably why it didn’t happen at Hutto. The profit margins on educating the children of illegal immigrants are slim if they exist at all, so one hour of classroom time was deemed enough.


Hutto was a secure facility filled with parents whose only crime was to want to be Americans, and children who had committed no crime at all. When one hands a center like this over to a business that specializes in corrections, the question must come up at some point: just what, exactly, is being corrected here?


Filmmakers interview families, speaking with parents who relate the stories of why they left their home to seek asylum in the United States, but keeping the cameras on their children, whose plight drives The Least of These. Children who misbehaved were separated from their parents. Outside play time was limited to as little as ten minutes a day, and the children’s educational needs are seen to by one hour of classroom time per day, an hour that mostly focuses on coloring and staying quiet.


It’s a regimen of treatment that has had a palpable and lasting effect on the children of Hutto, one that’s clear in watching these interviews. The children are preternaturally motionless, often seemingly devoid of emotion. They look, for lack of a better word, traumatized. The look is easy to understand; what is less clear is if they will ever recover.


In footage of a hearing on whether to renew CCA’s contract to run Hutto, Williamson county administrator Cythia Long defended the situation as being better than a Guatemalan prison she once toured. Which is, I suppose, a victory if you hold family detention centers in Texas and Guatemalan jails to the same standard. One would hope that our treatment of people who may have committed a crime is expected to be better, though.


The moment presents a telling insight into the feelings of many residents, who though they see jailing whole families as unpleasant, see no other alernative. As long puts it, “sometimes children have to suffer for the sins of their parents.” It’s a perhaps understandable sentiment, but one that’s significantly easier to sepouse when it is not your children who are suffering.


There is, frankly, little original about the filmmaking of directing team Clark and Jesse Lyda. In form and style, structure and delivery, it does little to distinguish itself from a legion but it is, if not entirely original, reasonably effective. The situation at Hutto got better in small but important ways and continued to improve until the facility’s closure last month, and it did so through the efforts of citizens groups and devoted lawyers.

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