Skip to Content

Hope and Despair as Families Languish in Texas Immigration Centers

14 Jun

DILLEY, Tex. — Workers are putting the finishing touches on rows of barracks in a 50-acre camp here, the largest immigration detention center in the country. It houses thousands of women and their children who were caught crossing the border illegally and are seeking asylum in the United States.

Federal officials say the center is a crucial part of the Obama administration’s strategy to avert another influx like the one last summer, when nearly 70,000 parents with children overwhelmed the authorities along the Southwest line.

That strategy, though, has drawn intense criticism from lawmakers, advocates and religious leaders, who say confinement only compounds the suffering of women fleeing predatory gangs or domestic abuse at home.

In response, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson ordered changes to make it easier for more women and children to be released. Last week, several mothers who had languished in camps for six months or more were granted bond and let go.

But Mr. Johnson, who planned to visit a nearby detention center on Monday, said he was not changing the overall course.

“I am not prepared to abandon the policy and shut down the facilities such that we have no capability to detain adults who bring their children,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview. “We simply cannot have a situation where if you cross the border and are apprehended, you can count on being escorted to the nearest bus station.”

Surrounded by high fencing, the South Texas Family Residential Center, as it is officially known, has a basketball gym, a school for the children, a state-of-the-art medical clinic and a beauty salon.

But in interviews last month, women who had been here for months said the time in detention with no defined end had taken a severe toll, leaving mothers despondent and young children worried and confused.

“I would be lying if I said they didn’t treat us well,” said Y.G.G., a 27-year-old woman who has been at the camp here since February with two children, ages 9 and 6. She said she had fled Honduras after vengeful drug traffickers murdered five of her relatives and told her that she was next. Like the other women interviewed, she asked to be identified only by her initials because asylum cases are confidential.

“But I can’t sleep because I have such a headache from thinking about being trapped in here,” she said. “My children get so sad, and they ask me, ‘Mama, when will we get out of here?’ After all they went through, they are traumatized again.”

At the nearby center in Karnes City, Tex., which Mr. Johnson will visit on Monday, lengthy stays for some women have led to simmering unrest and at least two reports of suicide attempts.

Mr. Johnson ordered the opening of new facilities last summer, after many families crossing the border illegally said they had been spurred by word reaching Central America that parents with children were routinely released by border agents to stay in the United States.

The centers were designed to hold the women while they fight their cases in the immigration courts, part of the administration’s expansion of family detention to more than 3,000 beds nationwide, from only 95 a year ago.

A camp hastily assembled in Artesia, N.M., closed in December. Since then, women with children have been sent here to Dilley, which holds up to 2,400 migrants; to the Karnes center, with a capacity for 530 people; or to one in Berks County, Pa., built for 100 people.

Since last year, Homeland Security officials had been denying release to many mothers — to send a message to families in Central America that they would not go free if they came to the United States.

In February, a federal judge in Washington ordered officials to stop denying bond to Central American asylum seekers solely for the purpose of deterring other migrants. The administration appealed.

But in May, Mr. Johnson issued new guidelines, telling officials that they should no longer argue deterrence as a factor when they set bond and should consider only the risk the migrants might not appear in immigration court. Officials will also review family cases after 90 days of detention, and again every 60 days, to see if they should be considered for release.

Under the new policy, bond rates have dropped and more women are being released sooner to fight their cases on the outside. Immigration officials say the average stay in Dilley is now 22 days.

While the number of people crossing the border illegally has dropped sharply this year, families continue to come. Since Oct. 1, more than 17,000 parents and children have been caught along the Southwest border, according to official figures. At the Dilley camp, more than half the detainees are children. Their average age is 9.

They live with their mothers in modular barracks among open yards that torrential rains have turned into mud flats. Bunk rooms, which hold 12 people each, have refrigerators, televisions and telephones. Migrants can move about within the camp, and neighborhoods are identified with colorful logos of parrots and butterflies so that wandering children can find their way home. Unlike in a prison, everyone keeps his or her shoelaces.

When migrants arrive, they go to storerooms stacked with new clothing and sneakers to select outfits to keep. Mothers are supplied with diapers, bottles and strollers. Children are vaccinated, and almost everyone gets an X-ray for tuberculosis.

A staff pediatrician performs weekly wellness checks, officials said. On a recent day, a nurse took the temperature of everyone entering the dining hall for lunch, to control an outbreak of chickenpox.

In a school classroom, 17 lively children raised their hands and tried to outdo one another saying the English words for the apples and peanuts that a bilingual teacher displayed on a Smart Board. They all knew what to say when she showed a chocolate cone. “I love ice cream!” they shouted.

Recreation specialists lead Zumba classes. In the one-chair beauty parlor, detainees earn $1 a day styling hair.

A formal courtroom has a video screen beaming immigration judges sitting in Miami. This year, official figures show, 88 percent of migrants in family centers passed the first hurdle for an asylum claim, an interview in which they described their fears of returning home.

Some women detained here said they felt relief at first, after bringing their children on a journey from Central America almost as perilous as the mayhem they were escaping.

R.P.C., 26, said she had left El Salvador after gunmen in her town told her 12-year-son that he could either join their gang or die. She had been detained since April with him and an 8-year-old daughter.

“At least here we are together and we’re safe,” she said.

But as weeks drag on to months, mothers struggle. Children become restless and wonder what they did wrong.

“It’s true they give the children toys to play with,” said Y.R.V., 33, who came with a 5-year-old daughter from Guatemala. “But they hear so much about court, about lawyers, that’s what their games are about. One little girl asks another, ‘Are you going to court? Are you getting out before me?’ Those are their games in here.”

Medical staff reported many complaints that children were rejecting the dining hall food and losing weight. But an audit in May at the Karnes center by the Department of Homeland Security civil rights office, based on a review of about 200 medical charts of women and children, “did not reveal any significant weight loss.”

Yet at Karnes, some women with long stays protested with hunger strikes in March and April. During a visit in May, many women rushed from their rooms and gathered around reporters, clamoring for help to win release.

Mélida L.G., who is 30, was detained in July with her daughter Estrella, now 4. (Their first names have previously been made public.) Her sister-in-law was murdered by a criminal gang on Long Island. Relatives testified against the killer at his New York trial. Back in Guatemala, members of the same gang came looking for Mélida, and she fled.

“Sometimes I feel I am drowning in my own desperation,” she said in an interview in May, her 10th month in detention. “I want to shut myself in a room and never come out.”

Luis Zayas, a psychiatric specialist who evaluated her for her asylum claim, said Mélida was in “a severe state of depression.” Mr. Zayas, the dean of the social work school at the University of Texas at Austin, found that Estrella was buffeted by her mother’s moods, and her asthma had worsened.

“When her mother is distressed, she is sad and becomes distressed,” Mr. Zayas said in an interview. “We really are depriving this girl of a normal childhood experience.”

After their lawyer, Stephen Manning, pressed officials to review the case under the new guidelines, they were finally granted bond at $1,500. They were released Thursday to join their family in New York.

Women and children who had help from lawyers have often been successful at obtaining early release or winning asylum. But lawyers said the Corrections Corporation of America, the private contractor running the Dilley center, had raised obstacles for their work. Although the court is in Florida, they have been prohibited from bringing in mobile phones or scanners. Legal assistants have been barred from bringing food and banned for wearing underwire bras.

With some 40 migrants arriving at Dilley each day, most have to go it alone. “They might have winning claims,” said Elora Mukherjee, a professor from Columbia Law School who brought a squad of students to volunteer here last month. “But we don’t know because there are just not enough lawyers.”