ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The change in immigration policy now allows families who are in the U.S. illegally to be detained. And last summer, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement began holding entire families, including small children, at a prison outside of Austin, Texas. Officials say before the facility opened, illegal immigrants with children were often released with a notice to appear before an immigration judge. But the immigrants rarely made their court dates.

Greg Mead, director of the Hutto Family Residential Facility, open the center to the press today. He says the facility is crucial to make sure these illegal immigrants don't disappear.

Mr. GREG MEAD (Hutto Family Residential Facility): It's an exceptional facility in terms of the ability to provide individual care to families. And the alternatives, you know, were just not acceptable, either leaving them to the smugglers and potentially being abused, or having to release them back into the community once they're apprehended.

NORRIS: But attorneys for the detainees say it is wrong for the government to house small children.

NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us now from Taylor, Texas. Carrie, what is that facility like on the inside?

CARRIE KAHN: Well, as you said, it is a prison. It was a former prison housing state and county inmates. There are cellblocks that have steel bunk beds with open toilets and sinks in cellblocks, coming out into a pod area that is shared region. They put some toys in there. They put some Sony PlayStations. There were three that we saw. They have swings sets out in the yard. And then there's barbed wire all around it. There are guards everywhere. They're not armed. The doors aren't locked, but nobody can go anywhere unescorted.

NORRIS: How many people are housed at this facility? How many families? How many children?

KAHN: The capacity is 512 people. And today, when we were there, they said they had 375 people, and we're talking about over 200 of those are children. They said anywhere from the ages of five-18, but we saw babies in there. There are prison uniforms for infants and uniforms for all the children. They take exception to it being said they're are prison uniforms. They're not like orange jumpsuits. But they are green and blue scrubs and everybody is wearing the same outfit.

NORRIS: Now, Carrie, we understand that there were actually two different tours. Why were there are two separate tours? And how were they different?

KAHN: Well, they said they arranged this tour for everybody, and they said there were would be two. The first one, they would only allow recording equipment. Myself was there with my audio equipment, photographers and one camera crew. And we were taken on a separate tour. There was no one in the facility at that time, so we went into empty cell rooms. We went into a computer room and a classroom, which were empty. And then the second tour, they were allowing people with just your pen and your pad.

And there was about 15 of us on that tour, and then we did see people. And it was definitely, Michele, a very different environment when you do see the children there and you see their families. And, you know, people were trying to wave to us and wanted to talk to us. And the official said that for the protection of their privacy, that was why we could not speak to anybody and why nobody could be filmed or recorded.

NORRIS: The federal government says this is necessary. Critics, as you say, say this is absolutely abhorrent. So what's the alternative?

KAHN: Federal officials say that they do have alternatives. There is a smaller residential facility that was a nursing home, which is a much more family friendly environment. They also say that they're working on other alternatives, such as GPS ankle monitors. But advocates say that there are more effective, but less restrictive more humane ways to detain families.

NORRIS: Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Carrie Kahn, speaking to us from Taylor, Texas.

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