Immigrant Detainees Beaten, Lawsuit Claims

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CBS News Investigative Producer Laura Strickler wrote this for
A new lawsuit filed against a private contractor who runs an immigrant child detention center claims nine teenagers were beaten and abused by employees who work for Cornell Companies. The company has been cited by immigration officials for safety problems in the past. The Hector Garza facility in San Antonio handles young immigrant "males with serious behavioral and psychological impairments".

"I think the general American has no idea these kids even exist," said Susan Watson, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney for the nine plaintiffs, "When our own government treats them this way, they deserve their day in court," she said.

The plaintiffs claim they notified authorities of multiple beatings but no action was taken.

One of the plaintiffs is described in court documents as a 16-year-old Honduran male identified as C.C. Arriving at the border alone, C.C. was put into custody for a week by Border Patrol agents. He was later transferred to the Hector Garza Center, where court filings claim a teacher "severely battered C.C. punching and kicking him, then beating him with a chair as he lay on the floor."

Lawsuit filings claim C.C. conveyed this to the authorities but nothing was done. A week later, court documents indicate C.C. came to the defense of another child who was being beaten. C.C. was hit again, this time losing consciousness and ended up in the hospital, according to the civil complaint.

A spokesperson for Cornell Companies, Charles Seigel, says the company strongly denies any abuse, "Every complaint has been investigated by the company as well as by the state…and none of these have ever found any evidence of anything that can back up the charges." Seigel said there was a time when one of the teenagers went to the hospital but said it was due to injuries from a fight between the detainees, not from an abusive teacher.

This is not the first time Cornell Companies has been accused of safety problems. In September, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency pulled all 600 detainees from an Albuquerque jail run by Cornell.

ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the agency, "had great concern over the health, safety and security of our detainees in the facility" but would not provide any more detail. News reports at the time described a dirty, crowded facility with excessive heat and poor medical conditions. Nantel said the agency terminated its memorandum of understanding with the company this winter.

The Hector Garza San Antonio facility that contracted with the federal Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR) opened one month after ICE pulled their detainees from Cornell Companies' care.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement declined all comment citing the pending litigation.

Cornell Companies is just one of the companies that manages 36 ORR facilities nationwide. Documentation of care for immigrant detainee children in these detention centers across the country is poor according to a March, 2008 report from the Inspector General for Health and Human Services. The report found, based on a sampling of case files, that more than half lacked one or more required assessments for the children. Half did not contain education records and more than half did not include notes from counseling sessions. Auditors say this left it unclear whether children were receiving services at all.
By Laura Strickler