The Williamson County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to terminate the county’s involvement with the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor effective Jan. 31, 2019.
The decision was met with applause from more than 100 people inside the courtroom, many of whom before the meeting had called for the immigrant detention center to be closed, citing abuse allegations in the facility and the recent controversy over children being separated from their parents when crossing the border into the United States.
Tuesday’s vote does not mean the facility will be closed, however.
The commissioners cited a desire to end the county’s involvement in a federal issue as the reason to terminate the contract.
Commissioner Terry Cook said the vote was not because of the controversy over separating children from their parents at the border.
“It was that the county didn’t need to be in this business,” she said. Cook said the commissioners had been considering the decision for the past four months, but she would not say whether it had to do with abuse allegations — including of sexual assault — at the detention center.
“Williamson County government should focus on county health, county roads, county safety and law enforcement,” Cook said. “Above all it should focus on our county residents, making their lives better, and not on what is truly a federal government function that is outside of our county government purview.”
The facility houses detained immigrant women. CoreCivic, which owns and operates the center, pays the county about $8,000 per month for the costs associated with employing a county representative to serve as a liaison between Williamson County, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CoreCivic.
The 4-1 vote by the commissioners came after about 200 people protested the contract earlier in the morning outside the county’s courthouse in Georgetown.
“Thank you for voting. You did the right thing legally; you did the right thing morally,” Sofia Casini, a coordinator for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership group, told commissioners after the vote.
Casini said the detention center needs to be shut down. Grassroots Leadership has been supporting women at the detention center, including Salvadoran asylum-seeker Laura Monterrosa, who was released in March after she said she had been sexually assaulted by a female guard at the center.
ICE officials said they had no comment on the county’s decision or whether the federal government plans to keep using the detention facility. Cook said ICE could contract with CoreCivic to keep operating the detention center in the same manner the county does now.
CoreCivic spokesman Steven Owen said Tuesday, “Our focus at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center remains on continuing to meet our partner’s needs while maintaining our standing in the community as a good corporate citizen and employer.”
County Judge Dan Gattis said he had been interested in terminating the contract for at least a year because “the county no longer needs to be a party in the agreement for the facility to operate.”
Commissioner Cynthia Long said she voted to end the contract because “immigration laws and policies are the federal government’s responsibility, not the county’s.” Commissioner Larry Madsen said he voted to end the contract because it was not a “core function of the county.”
The only commissioner who voted against terminating the agreement, Valerie Covey, did not respond to a request for comment.
At least 35 mothers who have had their children taken from them at the border are being held at T. Don Hutto, and some are at imminent risk of deportation, according to Grassroots Leadership.
The commissioners’ vote “follows months of public pressure from formerly detained women, advocates, members of the faith community and Williamson County residents in the Shut Down Hutto Coalition, who have called for the closure of the for-profit prison,” the group said in a news release.
ICE contracted with Williamson County in 2006 to turn T. Don Hutto into an immigrant detention center, Cook said in a statement issued Monday. The facility originally was a prison.
The contract made Williamson County the facility administrator, Cook said. The county then contracted with the prison owner — at the time the Corrections Corporation of America — to run the detention center, she said.
The Corrections Corporation of America said in 2009 it would no longer detain families, and in 2010 the county signed a new contract changing the facility into a women’s detention center, Cook said.
“The history of (T. Don Hutto) has consisted of ongoing protests, vigils and lawsuits addressing claims of sexual and other abuses, along with numerous requests to end the contract, which incidentally protects the county against any lawsuits,” Cook said.