Hutto’s Children: Maddening Structures of Absence

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Children, including toddlers, are incarcerated in the Hutto Detention Center, in Taylor, Texas, a small community a few miles from Georgetown, where I teach. Not since the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II has the U.S. Government jailed children. As it did then, these shameful policies and quasi-military actions come at a time when it is culturally acceptable to express the most xenophobic views about immigrants. Fear, hatred, and ignorance rule the day. The United States government is fully aware that in jailing children they are breaking the Human Rights Charter of the United Nations, and has cynically denied access to Dr. Jorge Bustamante, a UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights of Immigrants.

Recreation yard at Hutto Detention Center

Recreation yard at Hutto Detention Center

These events have not gone unmediated, but their mediation has been structured by a system willing to reduce issues of immigration to debates by politicians over how to reform immigration policy in a way that better benefits the nation and its citizens. During these debates, Latino voices are less likely to be featured than voices from the business community, which is interested in the economic benefits of immigrant labor and who — ironically — often end up representing the pro-Latino side. An issue such as the Hutto Detention Center is essentially absent from mainstream media. Consider this: when I conducted a LexisNexis transcript search, I was able to retrieve 23 television and radio news transcripts mentioning Hutto. (In contrast, my search was interrupted when I entered “Lohan” because the search engine had found more than one thousand entries.) Of the 23 items retrieved, 20 were either from Texas media sources or Spanish-language television (Univision and Telemundo), three were from NPR, and one from Canadian television. Most of these mentions are brief, though some are poignant (for examples, listen to NPR’s All Things Considered on Feb. 9 or watch Univision’s Despierta America on Feb. 23).

Given the huge amount of television and radio news in America, the results of this brief search are evidence of a structured absence in national news organizations, which have often turned a blind eye to abuses of power involving foreigners in general and immigrants in particular in this post-9/11 America. The only national media that has addressed Hutto is CNN, where Lou Dobbs, CNN’s most xenophobic voice, has talked about the detention center in his own powerful, ethnocentric, and racist voice. The children, he claims, are better off in this prison than at home, where abject poverty is the norm. The humanitarian and civic organizations speaking on behalf of the children, he continues, are colluding with pro-immigration forces to get amnesty for those whom he calls “illegals.”

Art drawn by one of the children in the Hutto center

Art drawn by one of the children in the Hutto center

The overall effect of this lack of media coverage is that for most Americans, Hutto is not in the radar. Big media shape the majority’s sense of ethics and justice through the systematic repetition of nationalist and ethnocentric agendas (e.g., the honoring of soldiers and reporting of pro-military issues) and also–perhaps more poignantly–through their silences, the elements of life and reality that never make it to the evening news.

A small number of people have demonstrated their concern about the ongoing events at Hutto by using small media and employing the guerrilla tactics that are expected of activist citizens. Many of these activists assemble daily at the entrance of the prison to protest Hutto’s detention practices. Most are local. Others come on weekends, bring their cameras and banners, record, and post their footage on YouTube is one of the few relatively public and general forums that allows for events like Hutto to be videotaped and distributed to a wider audience. Through its almost nihilistic way of organizing its contents, YouTube provides space for an array of different video genres, contrasting viewing traditions, and counter-publics. The range of videos depicting Hutto that can be found on YouTube includes some in which the camera is used as a simple recording device, in its rawest power, without editing or artifice, a la the Lumieres: (link)

Typically shot by people not heavily involved with activist organizations or media, these videos are filmed outside the prison and record the protests themselves and the surrounding landscape. The filmmakers, clearly, do not have access to the prison or to officials involved with the detention center. Other videos are formal, traditional mini-documentaries that use documentary conventions to produce powerful narratives that attempt to engage our emotions and reason. In Children Confined-Immigrant Detention Center at Hutto (the most viewed of the Hutto videos), the filmmakers interview a child and her mother to harness the emotional force that will make the listing of UN provisions rhetorically powerful. In two-minutes, this video sponsored by the ACLU shows the perspective of immigrants and of the UN and locates the government actions as violations of American basic ideas of justice: (link)

As powerful as Children Confined is, I found T. Don Hutto-Footage from ICE to be the most eerie of all. The video is an unusual documentary shown by Docubloggers, a video initiative sponsored by KLRU, Austin’s public television broadcasting station. According to text accompanying the video, Docubloggers requested footage from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE gave them this footage, which Docubloggers presents without editing and without sound, as it was delivered to them. Although I am sure the footage was provided by ICE as a way of addressing criticism and to show the world the quality facilities and positive living conditions of Hutto, the effect is quite the opposite. For four minutes, we are allowed to see inside Hutto silent images of clean children in prison garb while they play, eat, and color. The only faces shown are blurred or at a distance, providing just enough visual information to learn that these are brown bodies, brown families, and brown children: (link)

Docubloggers decided to show the footage as it is, in part because they believed in the power of the visuals to communicate much more than ICE intended. They were right. There is something about the video that is excessive, that which images cannot seem to contain, information that is unruly and subverts the makers’ intentions. Two instances stand out: there is a point (1:26) when the video shows a series of people walking in front of the screen on an extremely clean floor, with extremely clean green prison garbs, and with brand new shoes. We only see them from knees down, an adult followed by several small set of feet. I found these seconds of footage quite unsettling and could not immediately point to the reason. Yet I realized that these images of disembodied feet are disturbing because they remind me of prison movies set during WWII in which prisoners are meant to be rehabilitated through the rigors of fascist uber-discipline, which is shown through rhythmic images, repetition, and obsessive cleanliness, just like in the ICE video. In a similar excessive fashion, later we see the aseptic reality of a cell (2:21) that includes four items: a toilet, a sink, bunk beds, and a crib. This image, empty of life, is intended to convey “humane” living conditions to viewers; instead, it reminds us of a morgue, its emptiness becomes scary, its cleanliness absurd. The overall effect of the video is partly reached by intertextuality, either by referencing fascist images or the codes of war or criminal videos, which often blur the faces of the subjects or cover them with hoods. Because of this intertextuality, the video seems more inhumane and indicting of the actions of the Federal Government and ICE.

I must make a last point about these wonderful videos and the counter-publics they serve. As powerful as some of the videos are, they have been viewed only a few thousand times. The ICE video has been viewed 23 times at the moment of this writing. These activists are so marginal that they have no chance whatsoever to impact our nation’s mainstream culture. They are in the fringes of our video culture, barely existing. They are marginal to the nation’s political pursuits, their goals irrelevant, their voices dim. To the great majority of Americans, the children of Hutto will remain safely an absence.

Image Credits:
1. Latina Lista


  • The immigration debate continues to be one that doesn’t offer any easy sound-bites or concrete issues for the average American to latch on to, so stories like Hutto tend to get pushed aside whenever the news cycle refreshes. Thanks for this piece, Hector, it is much appreciated!

  • First off, thanks to Hector for bringing more attention to this issue, which his article has demonstrated to be sorely needed.

    Several things jumped out at me while reading this article and exploring the links and YouTube clips. First, I was apalled at the nature of some of the comments on the YouTube clip pages, along the lines of the usual xenophobic calls for immigrants to “go home” if it’s “so bad.” Despite the words and images in the videos, YouTube commenters refuse to treat the people depicted as individuals with human rights, and instead consider them an indistinguishable mass. How interesting–and horrifying–to see these words juxtaposed against perhaps the most individualized representations of the struggle of immigrants and undocumented workers.

    The predominantly one-sided comments are upsetting, and point to two related problems in raising awareness about this issue. One, the comments are evidence of how well has the anti-immigrant side of the debate vilified immigrants to the point where a passive observer can watch a video of children and remain unmoved, and two, the detained individuals (and many members of immigrant communities) lack the ability to respond and interact with the YouTube community largely due to digital divide-type issues. I am reminded of Time magazine naming “You” as the person of the year, for “Your” interest in creating interactive internet media and user-generated content. Despite being the substance of such media, I doubt that the people in the videos were whom Time magazine had in mind as the persons of the year.

    Finally, the videos are powerful because they not only visualize those struggling under our current immigration policy, but allow them to speak, as well. As noted above, the digital divide prevents many groups from gaining equal access to the internet. These documentary clips provide a chance for the disadvantaged to speak out, speak back. It is far from perfect, but it is a nice change from the usual attempts of the media (i.e. affluent white males) to speak for, about, and around actual immigrants.

  • Thank you for this piece — an important example both of how alternative, do-it-yourself media can reach beyond the mainstream media frame, and the depressing limitations of attempting to do so. The immigration “debate” represents the attempt of Conservatives to mobilize the threat of an external and internal other for propaganda purposes. The war on terror turns out not to play so well these days for the GOP so they’re trying to transpose the anxiety about otherness from the threat of terror to that of an imagined immigrant horde. It’s racist and unbelievably cruel: not only does the US profit from the exploitation of undocumented workers, but, in the form of people like Lou Dobbs and Republicans desperate to distract voters from the tragic mishandling of the so-called war on terror it turns upon them to vilify and revile them. The lack of legal rights and protections makes such workers both eminently exploitable AND vulnerable targets for propagandists on the right. They’re doing double duty.
    This is a poignant reminder of just how far this nation seems to be willing to fall from its own core principles.

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  • im a student in the uk and im looking out for Extreme pictures and storys about these children in Hutto or any other centers. if you could please send me some or send me links or somethink, it will be a great help to my work and work mates. thanks

  • I am part of this. My wife is chinese and was in Haskell prison. I am white, born American. The usa has attacked my family. My wife will be sent back to China leaving us,her American family forever. It’s cruel and serves no one. I want to fight back for all of us. I don’t know how.

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