Family immigrant detention centers: The new internment camps

Staff members of AFSC’s Immigrant Rights Program in Newark joined advocates from across the nation in a protest against the family detention policies of the US government on May 1 in Dilley, Texas.  The Corrections Corporation of America, a for-profit company, runs the largest immigrant family detention center in the United States in Dilley that will detain up to 2400 mothers and children. AFSC staff attorneys Mich Gonzalez and Lloyd Munjack and legal assistant Andrea Huerta provided legal services to the women and children detained at another family detention center in Karnes, Texas owned by GEO Corporation the week following the protest. The descriptions of the interview with families are from that detention center. - Lucy


Three weeks ago I ate my dinner under the stars in Austin, Texas and I felt nauseated. I smiled and tried to enjoy the conversation and the view of the sunset over Lake Travis, but I just felt heavy and sick to my stomach. It was day one of my week volunteering for the Karnes Pro Bono project with RAICES, a non-profit organization in San Antonio, Texas. The project helps the immigrant families detained in the Karnes County Residential Center.

For the last 18 months, I have worked almost exclusively with men and women who are detained solely due to their immigration status. I knew well in advance that Karnes was different, in that the US government was also detaining children in this facility. Despite my experience and knowledge, I was naïve. Nothing could have prepared me for the reality of seeing mothers and their babies in jail.

I am an attorney at the American Friends Service Committee’s Immigrant Rights Program in Newark, New Jersey, where I counsel immigrants and represent them in their deportation hearings. I spend three to four days out of my workweek inside of the immigration detention centers in New Jersey.

Federal law allows non-citizens to be detained to ensure they attend all of their hearings or because they are deemed a danger to the community. Immigration detention is not supposed to be punitive. Yet nearly all of the over 350 detention facilities are built and run on a corrections model. They are jails. Billion-dollar companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group run many of these immigration jails.

The GEO Group runs the Karnes family jail. One of the bleakest moments during my week as a volunteer attorney was when I had to explain to one of the women that the logo on all of the staff polo shirts belonged to a company and not to the federal government. When I told her that this company receives a certain amount of money per day for every bed they fill, including that of her 3 year-old daughter, she shook her head in disgust and cried.

Libertad para las families

During the week I spoke with eight women and their children. I cannot recount every story I heard that week in detail, nor would I want to, but there were many threads of commonality.

All of the women were from Central America and none had made the decision to leave their homes and flee their countries lightly. They feared for their lives or for the well-being of their children. The majority suffered severe violence or witnessed acts of torture. 

One of the women was a schoolteacher in Honduras. She lived with her husband and three children who were all approaching adolescence. She enjoyed her home, and she loved teaching children. When gang members tried to forcibly recruit her pre-teen sons, she refused, and their lives were all threatened. She and her husband sold everything they owned in order to pay for their safe passage to the United States. When she and her children arrived at the border, they walked right up to the border patrol agents. She explained that they needed help. She told me she regretted this decision now, but she never knew she and her family would be treated like animals in this country.

Another of the women suffered such severe domestic violence that she had visible scars on her arms and legs. Before she spoke to me about it, she asked her 7 year-old son to please wait just outside the interview room. I gave him some sheets of paper and a pen to draw on. She did not want him to hear her recount the abuse she had suffered at the hands of his father.

AFSC staff Lloyd Munjack and Andrea Huerta standing with the AFSC banner

All of the children I met that week were sick with a visible sinus cold or flu. None had eaten well in the last two weeks since being in the US government custody.  None had been given medicine, despite requests. Some of the toddlers were still nursing and others were so exhausted that they slept in their mother’s arms throughout my one to two hour interview. All of the women complained that the rooms were too cold at night. They sleep four bunk beds (eight beds) to a single room. They are issued only one sheet per bed. Instead of having their children sleep in a separate bed, they sleep together in the bottom bunk. They explained how they use the sheet from the top bunk to create a shield around the bottom bunk from the cold air blowing through the vents. They all asked guards and officers repeatedly to please adjust the air and were refused.

One of the little girls did not want to enter the interview room with me. It was the first time in my life that a child looked at me with fear and distrust in her eyes. This interview took the longest because for the first half-hour she cried that she just wanted to go home. I won her over by playfully joking that we should exchange shoes. I said I liked hers better because they lit up. She finally laughed because she knew there was no way my feet could ever fit into her tiny pink sneakers.

All of the women told me about the time they spent in the so-called hieleras (ice boxes) after being apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security. Each one recounted in detail how gruff border patrol agents initially detained them in a steel-like room with no beds and no windows. They all spent two days and one night in the first hielera that was so cold that no one could sleep, and the children cried day and night. They were all given a small sandwich they each described as barely edible for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each recounted how their children refused to eat. Then they were all moved from the first hielera to a second hielera where they spent three days and two nights. This one, they explained, at least had mattresses strewn on the floor, but was still freezing cold and the food remained unchanged.

The weekend before I started at Karnes, two AFSC co-workers and I participated in a rally at the other Texas family immigration jail located in Dilley. There were over 800 of us from all walks of life chanted, sang and shouted as we marched down Highway 85 with our signs, banners and large paper puppets. I met people of varying ethnicities, nationalities and immigration status. Many were US citizens that had family, friends and community members touched by immigration detention policies. Many had travelled from other states – like us – to participate in the march. The organizers, activists and participants included children, the elderly and disabled. A few walked with canes and on crutches and others rolled down the highway in their wheelchairs in the blazing hot sun. Some looked proud and empowered, others justifiably sad and angry.

Marching with AFSC banner

After the march, formerly detained men, women and children shared their stories. The man I had seen marching on crutches explained how he lost his arm and leg while traveling on a train through Mexico to get to the United States. He spoke about the humiliation he suffered in immigration detention when the officials did not know how to hand or ankle cuff him due to his disability; instead they wrapped a chain around his waist. He said that he never cried more in his life than during the months he spent in immigration jail and that he would rather march a hundred miles on his crutches in pain as a free man than let others endure such degradation.

One of the women spoke about her solidarity with the mother’s hunger strike that the women in the Karnes facility organized and urged us to join. It felt like a victory that day seeing hundreds of people gathered together and hearing people speak out about their experiences. The Dilley facility - run by Corrections Corporation of America - alone has 2,400 beds contracted for immigrants. It is a huge complex that can only be described as a modern day internment camp. The mass for-profit jailing of immigrant women and children who are seeking safety demands all of our attention.

It is scary to think we are all complacent to what is happening. But the truth is I was nauseated after day one and even after day two during my week working out of Karnes. But by day three I was able to eat my dinner without a stomachache. Everyday as I walked into the facility, there were kind, everyday people working there. Many were mothers themselves. But they were willfully ignorant or they had bought into the story being sold to them. They had come to view this immigration jail as acceptable. As a “family residential center.”

We cannot allow this practice to continue or to become normalized. We cannot sit idly by and watch as these gross human rights violations continue to be justified. We must all stand up and shut these facilities down.

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