The names and biographical information stated below have been altered to protect the identities of the children and their mothers who were detained in the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX. Some of the drawing displayed were made by these children.
cw: suicide, state violence, sexual assault
The South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) is located an hour south of San Antonio, less than 100 miles from the border. The 2,400-bed facility opened in 2014 under the Obama administration, as part of their family detention policy. STFRC sits on the side of Texas State Road 85, next to the Briscoe Unit state prison. Only its misleading name (“Family Residential Center”), and the disturbing image of an empty playground that appears upon a simple Google search, obscure the reality of this facility and the families living inside it.
The facility, managed by CoreCivic, a private prison company, houses Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees––mothers and children. It is composed of several large metal trailers. The tan color of the buildings could almost blend into the pale glow of the desert, if it wasn’t for the blinding flood lights that invade the landscape at night. Although the weather in South Texas was in the hundreds throughout the summer, the buildings are cold and heavily air conditioned. I was lucky to carry a sweater with me at all times, while my clients were made to wear the bright t-shirt and dark blue jeans that replace the orange uniforms of a “normal” prison. While not as violently cold as the infamous Hielera—a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility where adults and children are forced to lie on the bare ground with aluminium blankets and are fed frozen mortadella sandwiches—the family detention center is merely an empty promise that the worst has passed.
On September 6, the Trump administration revealed its new proposed rule by the Homeland Security and the Health and Human Services Departments regarding the “apprehension, processing, care, and custody” of immigrant children. The document is meant to replace the Flores Settlement, a 20-year-long agreement which set national standards regarding the treatment and due process for all children in government custody. The proposed regulations, among other things, contain language that minors placed in “expedited removal” or facing imminent deportation would be under the same strict standard as adults. The result would be the unparalleled expansion of immigrant detention.
The 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement was the result of over a decade of litigation responding to the detention policy towards an influx of unaccompanied migrant children in the 1980s. Back then, immigrant children in Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) custody were being detained in prison-like conditions, often with unrelated adults. Since its resolution, after an appeal to the Supreme Court, the Flores Settlement has allowed children first detained at the border to be promptly released to family members, or otherwise held in the “least restrictive setting” possible. Since the INS ceased to exist, the Department of Homeland Security, and consequently ICE, have been made responsible for providing these crucial guarantees to immigrant children.
Following an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit fought on behalf of separated families, District Judge Dana Sabraw mandated that immigrant parents be reunited with their children. The deadline to reunite families separated under the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy was July 10 for children under 5 years old, and July 26 for children between the ages of 5 and 17. The summer I was in Dilley, TX, it was expected that many of these reunited families, maybe hundreds of them, were still under ICE custody, and would be transferred to STRFC for imminent deportation or prolonged detention.
On Monday, July 16, attorneys, paralegals, advocacy and project coordinators, and long-term interns of the Dilley Pro Bono Project gathered for an emergency meeting. There is an extreme quiet in the room, a strange stillness from our normal 13-hour work days of quick turnarounds, screaming guards, and crying children wanting to go to dinner. In preparation for the transfer of reunified families into Dilley, the largest immigrant detention center in the United States has slowly emptied out. We want to prepare for the worst (that the children will be detained indefinitely), but the truth is we don’t know what to prepare for. This policy of “keeping families together” is unprecedented, just as family separation was.
In order to be reunited with their children, immigrant parents were coerced into signing a waiver that ultimately waived many of their rights and many of the protections entitled to their children. The main fear of the attorneys and paralegals at Dilley was, among many other fears, that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would no longer adhere to the guarantees of the Flores Agreement for previously separated children, and that ICE would resort to detaining these families indefinitely. By August 31, over half of those families were still detained at Dilley with no end in sight. Some of these women and children had been detained by ICE for close to four months— long past the 20 day limit imposed by the Flores Settlement.
The danger anticipated by our team of legal advocates is now closer to being a reality than ever before, as the proposed rules would override crucial guarantees that currently impede the long-term detention of immigrant children. Following the public outrage about the family separation policy that took ground this summer, the current administration seems to have found a suitable compromise: keeping families together in detention. The only thing standing in the way of that is Flores.
During my time as an intern at the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which provides legal services to mothers detained at STFRC, I had several clients complain about the detention center’s living conditions. One of my clients stood in line under the sun for hours, several days in a row, in order to get her daughter registered for school—only to be told that they “didn’t have any spots.” At the time she was also preparing for the interview that would determine her ability to apply for asylum in the United States. I had several clients who reported that healthcare providers inside the prison had refused to attend to their children’s needs. Sometimes children fainted, or were carried around under the sun with high fevers only to be given popsicles when they were brought to the clinic. Many of the children who were separated from their parents and were transferred from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to Dilley received the same vaccines twice or even three times, although they had paperwork proving that they had already been vaccinated. A few times, clients were forced to walk around with broken shoes and clothes that were too small, given ICE’s inability to provide appropriate clothing.
Kathryn Shepherd, National Advocacy Counsel for the Immigration Justice Campaign, described in a recent webinar that “one of the main concerns of advocates and the legal community is that the proposed regulations would permit ICE to self-license and inspect family jails.” Currently, under the Flores Agreement, none of the family detention centers in operation are approved childcare facilities. Some of the minimum standards for licenced facilities, as outlined in Flores vs Reno, are “suitable living accommodations, food, appropriate clothing, and personal grooming items, educational services appropriate to the minor's level of development, and communication skills in a structured classroom setting, outdoor activity, and a reasonable right to privacy,” among others. The proposed regulations would now allow DHS to licence these facilities as established by each state or, in the absence of any licencing in the jurisdiction, to contract its own licencing entity. As Shepard puts it: “it’s like the fox guarding the henhouse.”
In the context of policy changes that strive to leave ICE’s power unchecked, we must remember that ICE was formed as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. The institution was effectively formed in March 2003, only 15 years ago. As much as Republican discussions of ICE have aimed to draw attention to its role as the investigative arm of Homeland Security, the truth of the matter is that most of its operations are in regards to the arrest and removal of ‘aliens.’ Concretely, in 2018, Enforcement and Removal Operations claimed a $4.8 billion budget, as opposed to Homeland Security Investigations’ $2 billion budget. Currently, given the looming repeal of Flores, it is to be expected that the capacity of the “deporting” arm of ICE will expand to an unprecedented extent, given the unparalleled expansion of its detention capacity.
I met Pedro early in June this year. He sneaked in and out of the consultation room where his mother and I spoke for the first time, upon his mother’s transfer from La Hielera (the icebox) to Dilley. I was getting to know her case in order to prepare her for her “credible fear interview” the next day, where she would have to show to an Asylum Officer fear of returning to her country of origin, in accordance to US immigration law. Pedro was a sweet nine-year-old boy, who had fled Guatemala with his mother. Back in their home country, his mother had experienced verbal, physical and sexual assault, as well as extortion and threats of death.
Because of a series of unfortunate circumstances (including an Immigration Judge’s refusal to release the family given the illegality of detaining a child for over 20 days), I continued to encounter Pedro throughout the two months I spent working at STFRC. I worked extensively on his mother’s case, and, in the process, can attest to the endless love and care she had for him, which he reciprocated in all the ways a nine-year-old forced into life too soon could express.
Unfortunately, that came along with witnessing the effects of detention on Pedro and his mother. I saw him grow thin and tired. One afternoon, his mother came into the visitation trailer looking to talk to me. She said her son has been asking her to “go sign,” asking her to voluntarily deport them both back to their death sentence. He could not stand the jail anymore. He hated the food and hated the school. He felt constantly ill. One night, Andrea confided in me months later, Pedro experienced extreme panic in the room he and his mother shared with six other detained families. “Everyone in the room got up because of his sobs. The other mothers would ask him what had happened and he said he wanted to die, “the only thing I want is to leave this place, I can’t… I can’t take it anymore” he said. “I couldn’t stop crying seeing him like this. That was definitely the worst day,” she told me.
The effects of detention are devastating for child and teenage development. As professor and researcher Dima Amso told the Independent, sub-optimal detention facilities can lead to “the early biological embedding of stress, which changes learning and memory, behavioral regulation, probability for anxiety and depression and even physical health decades later.”
Pedro and Andrea were released from detention after two months and are now fighting their case outside. In May, CNN reported that “the average length of the asylum process, from application to decision,” could take up to 180 days. That estimate does not even consider a person’s right to appeal this decision in front of the Board of Immigration Appeals. The proposed changes to the Flores Settlement would mean that immigrant families could be kept in jail for several months, even years.
The Flores Settlement was the result of over a decade of litigation responding to the detention policy aimed at an influx of unaccompanied migrant children in the 1980s. Originally, the decision only protected unaccompanied minors from indefinite and inhumane detention. It wasn’t until the Obama administration instituted harsh ‘deterrence’ policies, indefinitely detaining Central American families seeking asylum so as to deport them more ‘efficiently,’ that immigration advocates used it to challenge the prolonged detainment of families. Now, even the rights of unaccompanied minors are under threat from the Trump administration’s attempts to modify the Flores Settlement.
The new regulation would allow Immigration officers to redetermine if a child meets the definition of Unaccompanied Minor—and hence whether they are eligible for the corresponding immigration benefits— every time they encounter the child. As Shepherd explains: “this means that vulnerable children who arrive at the border alone at a tender age could be stripped of the minimal due process protections that they are currently entitled to.”
Further stipulations made in the new regulations threaten unaccompanied minors’ rights, even the right to be considered a “minor.” If no corrections are made to the proposed regulations, DHS could re-detain children with no burden to prove a change in their circumstances, even after release from custody. Any DHS employee or ICE officer could treat a teenager as an adult by way of a medical or dental examination that declares them 18 or over, regardless of the child’s testimony of their own age. This could allow ICE to assign ages to detained children so as to override crucial guarantees for minors. Finally, the proposed regulations provide wide discretion to waive all protections for children if the government deems that there is an emergency. Given the catastrophic discourse surrounding a ‘tough hand’ on immigration—particularly coming from Central America and Mexico—this is an extremely dangerous stipulation, putting the lives of children and teenagers on the line.
Family detention centers like the one in Dilley are unsuited to provide care to any of their detainees, let alone a child. As opposed to the statement made by an ICE top official to congress that family detention centers are “more like a summer camp,” the reality inside family jails is cruel and heartbreaking.
In the visitation trailer, I regularly observed CoreCivic employees scream at and diminish these families. Coloring books, crayons, and even diapers are managed and controlled by the guards, making it impossible to escape the reality of imprisonment that these families are subjected to. Basic access to education and healthcare are impeded by the bureaucracy and unresponsiveness that operates these detention centers. As Dilley Pro Bono Project Managing Attorney, Shay Fluharty, put it, the bottom line is “[ICE] cannot have the agency of being the deporter and the institution responsible for the protection of these children.”
While the discourse around immigration and the protection of immigrants should center all of those affected, regardless of age and gender, there is a particular cruelty embedded in the latest move by this administration. When President Donald Trump claims that if “you get rid of ICE, you’re going to have a country that you’re going to be afraid to walk out of your house,” he shows nothing but his deep ignorance regarding the institution’s history, as well as the bulk of its operations. Calls for the abolition of ICE are intrinsic to availing the protection of immigrant children, their families, and all immigrants seeking rightful asylum in this country.
While the effects of these regulations is concrete, they are just a proposal of what the lives of immigrant children could become under this government. The proposed changes to Flores include a 60-day period for the public to submit comments and amendments regarding its content and impact. The public comments process will close on November 6th. If anything, this is one of few possibilities to keep this government accountable. If for anyone, for the 12,800 immigrant children currently detained by this government.
I speak to Andrea, Pedro’s mother, on the phone; it’s been little over a month since their release from detention. She says: “I am a mother that left her country of origin fleeing the danger we faced there, hoping that everything would be okay soon, that my son would finally be in peace… when we were transferred to Dilley [after being in the icebox and the dog pound] my son became depressed and would cry asking why did we come here, saying: ‘they will kill us in Guatemala, but they kill us here too.’”
PAULA PACHECO SOTO B'20 hates all jails.