TAYLOR, Texas — TAYLOR, Texas -- Khadijah Bessuges is confined by metal gates and razor wire. She wears a uniform. She sleeps in an 8-by-15-foot cell, and stands by her cot four times a day when the guards count heads. And her favorite teddy bear was confiscated. But she has her father, Sebastien, who sleeps in the cell with her.
Khadijah is 9 years old.
She is one of 208 children held with their parents at the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center, the Department of Homeland Security's answer to the problem of families caught living in or entering the country illegally.
"It's not a good place for people," Khadijah said in a recent telephone interview. "People here get sad, and they don't want to be here. They want to be with their families."
Hutto, which opened in May, is a pillar of the administration's stepped-up effort to crack down on illegal border crossings and detain immigrants until their appeals can be heard. Proudly promoted by the Department of Homeland Security as a major achievement, it may be a model for future facilities.
But Hutto also illustrates the bind the administration faces as its pursuit of better border security collides with the reality that many of those in the country illegally are minors.
On Friday, most of Hutto's 383 inmates were children.
Immigrant advocates and human rights groups question why Khadijah and the others are being jailed for decisions their parents made. They charge that, in the Bush administration's rush to seal the southern border, it is trampling on laws that govern how to treat amnesty-seekers and on established practices for detaining minors.
"Children being in jail with their parents is what is morally and ethically wrong with this picture," said Frances Valdez, an Austin attorney with the University of Texas Immigration Clinic, who has clients at Hutto.
A former prison northeast of Austin, Hutto is run by a for-profit company with a controversial track record. And though the facility is meant for detention measured in days, many detainees are locked inside for months.
Attorneys say children there lose weight because of substandard food and suffer from untreated medical problems. Adults and children alike are given an hour of recreation a day and only rare chances to venture outdoors.
The adults at Hutto may be seeking asylum or have violated immigration laws, but they have not been charged with other crimes. Sebastien Bessuges, a Frenchman who married an American citizen last year, was arrested for overstaying his visa.
Immigrants make up the fastest-growing group of people incarcerated in the United States, according to the American Bar Association. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, holds more than 200,000 people over the course of a year at more than 300 sites.
For the administration and attorneys alike, family detention is largely uncharted territory. "Standards for family detention do not exist in the U.S.," said Michelle Brane of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. The ICE has asked Brane's group and others to discuss the creation of standards for family detention.
Congress did not have Hutto in mind when it directed the Department of Homeland Security in 2005 and 2006 to stop separating families and house them in nonpenal, homelike environments. It suggested methods such as electronic monitoring, which is being tested in eight cities. And advocates point to a San Diego family shelter run by nuns, as another possible model.
Concerns about Hutto are rising. A government commission issued a "report card" Thursday that fails the department for its treatment of asylum-seekers - many of whom are detained the longest at Hutto. A Texas legislator has introduced a resolution condemning the practice of jailing children, local groups have held vigils outside the center, the American Civil Liberties Union is considering a lawsuit and one Hispanic advocacy group has demanded an investigation.
"We want to know what's going on there," said Rosa Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "When you see the place, with its barbed wire, it's a prison. Putting immigrants in concentration camps should not be happening in the United States."
Homeland Security officials play down the complaints. "I don't think the criticisms are fair," said Gary Mead, assistant director for the ICE's Detention and Removal Operations. "This is run as a family shelter, it's not run as a jail. There is medical care; the meals are nutritious. Do people complain? They probably do; they're being detained."
In November 2005, the Department of Homeland Security announced the Secure Border Initiative, an effort to end illegal border crossings. Until then, non-Mexicans were usually released after being caught because there was no way to return them quickly and the department did not have enough beds to detain them.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had identified families as a particular problem because the department didn't have the facilities to detain them together. Human rights groups strongly protested separations.
"We could let families go or split them up," Mead said. "Hutto became very important to ending that."
Hutto is run by the Corrections Corp. of America, a government contractor, which earns $95 per person for every day the person is detained at the central Texas facility. It has a mixed track record. Watchdog groups have documented mismanagement, including inadequate medical care, failure to control violence and substandard conditions.
In the two weeks since Sebastien and Khadijah Bessuges arrived, the department has upgraded Hutto. Razor wire has been removed from the front entrance. Artificial plants camouflage the iron entry gates. And, as in a preschool, walls and doors are plastered in bright coloring paper, cheerful stickers and big blocky alphabet letters.
But the decor, installed before a news media tour Friday, cannot disguise the fact that Hutto is a prison. Iron bars cover windows and doors. Cameras scan hallways. Metal gates separate areas.
The children and their parents can blow off steam for an hour a day in a gymnasium with basketballs and hoops; plastic sofas and chairs block off an area for babies and toddlers to play with plastic toys. The rest of the time they are kept in pods of several cells. Though some cell locks are disengaged, at night they are armed with lasers and alarms.
The average stay at Hutto is 18.5 days, according to the ICE, though some end up in there for months. In the ICE's other family facility, in Pennsylvania, advocates say the average stay is 59 days, and at least one family with three children spent more than two years in detention there.
Bessuges, who overstayed his 2004 visa, visited a federal immigration center last month to see what he needed to extend his stay. The next day, ICE agents raided his suburban Phoenix home and detained him and his daughter from a previous marriage.
The next day, Bessuges said, immigration officials gave him a choice: He could stay in Arizona, and he and his daughter would be held in separate detention centers, or they could board a plane for the Texas detention center and be together.
Nicole Gaouette and Miguel Bustillo write for the Los Angeles Times.