“Will he hurt me?” She shrank back in her seat, her eyes filling with tears as she clung to the toddler in her lap.
“No, no, he won’t hurt you,” I replied, realizing too late my mistake. We were sitting in a frigid and spartan interview room in the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC)—the largest immigrant detention center in the country. I’d been explaining to the woman what her asylum interview process would be like, and I thoughtlessly mentioned that the asylum officer was with the government. She was going to be alone in a room with the government. “The government doesn’t do that here,” I assured her, but then I trailed off, thinking of all the things she had just told me that called that claim into question. “You’ll be safe in your interview,” I amended. I didn’t use the word “government” with an asylum-seeker again.
It was the summer of 2019, and a group of six UIS students and I were at STFRC for a week, volunteering with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. We spent 15-hour days working directly with asylum-seeking women and children, preparing them for their credible fear interview—the first step in the asylum application process—and drafting legal documents. STFRC is located in the tiny town of Dilley, Texas, 80 miles southwest of San Antonio. It is run by a private for-profit prison company called CoreCivic. It houses up to 2400 people, but it isn’t actually a building—it’s a large grouping of trailers, some for sleeping, some for eating, some for meeting with the asylum officers who hold detainees’ futures in their hands. A person can’t get from one trailer to another without going outside into the blistering heat. Attorneys are strictly prohibited from accessing any areas other than the “visitation trailer” (and photos are so strictly forbidden that even taking a selfie in the front parking lot can result in a lifetime ban at the facility), so detainees’ living conditions remain unknown to outsiders. The facility opened in 2014, and reportedly costs taxpayers $319 every day per detained family, or $13 million per month. CoreCivic saw record profits the year after its opening.
“The gang stopped me as I was walking my 7-year-old daughter to school,” another young mother told me. “They said she was beautiful, and they were going to take her to be their ‘girlfriend.’ When I argued, they said they’d let me go in her place, but it had to be one of us. I would have to live with them, sleep with them, and do whatever they said. I agreed but convinced them to wait until I had dropped my daughter off at school first. When we were out of their sight, we ran.”*
“Family Residential Center” might suggest something soft, comforting, voluntary. But it’s a prison. Actions and movement are strictly controlled. Families detained in STFRC in Dilley are mothers and children; adult men and men with children are sent to other facilities. Families that arrive together and include older boys or men are therefore typically separated, and the remnants of the family at STFRC usually don’t know where they are. Everyone at STFRC is seeking asylum. None are accused or suspected of committing any crime, despite their imprisonment. Pregnant women and infants were not supposed to be held at STFRC due to the particular dangers for them, but they were. The law requires that children not be held for longer than 20 days due to the damage that detention inflicts on them, but that too has happened frequently. Some call the facility “baby jail” due to the large numbers of young children confined there.
“Did you go to the police for help?” I asked another woman who had described the gang’s threats to kill her if she didn’t pay them a crippling amount of extortion money every month. They came to her home; they knew where she lived. She went to stay with her brother out of fear for her life. “I was scared to go to the police,” she replied, “They don’t do anything, and the gang finds out and will punish you. But my brother convinced me to do it, and he went with me. But the police said they couldn’t help. The next day someone came to the house when I wasn’t there. They shot and killed my brother in front of my daughter. When I came home and saw what had happened, I grabbed my daughter and we left. They will kill us both if we go back. They are still looking for me. My sister-in-law is alone now, and it’s my fault,” she cried.
Before being sent to STFRC, virtually everyone spends some time in a Border Patrol facility. Border Patrol is not supposed to hold children for more than 72 hours by law, but they do—sometimes many times longer than the maximum detention length, sometimes for many weeks. Women spoke of the “icebox” (concrete cells kept at frigid temperatures) and the “dog pound” (chain link cells) where they slept on the concrete floor—sometimes sitting up for lack of space, or sleeping in bathroom stalls next to the toilet. The lights were kept on all night, they were forced to eat frozen or rotten food, were provided no showers or soap, had minimal access to water, and were often awakened throughout the night by agents yelling with a bullhorn or by an agent’s boot as it kicked them awake. Border Patrol facilities are not designed for children at all; “filthy and inhumane,” they resemble jails but are “substantially worse,” according to one federal judge who ruled them “unfit for humans.” Yet they lock up thousands of children for extended periods.
“Mama!” the little girl wailed. “Don’t leave me! I want to stay with you!” Her mother had asked the girl, 5, to go into the “playroom” next door to the interview room so that she and I could talk about things that no child should have to hear. But the girl couldn’t bear being separated from her mother. So she came with us, declined her own chair for her mother’s lap, and had no interest in the kids’ movie and headphones we offered. She sat, unmoving, silent, and wide-eyed, for the entire two hours of our meeting.
Woman after woman, the stories were harrowing and horrifying. They spoke of fear, death, pain, violence, and tremendous loss. Yet they also radiated courage, fortitude, and a resounding sense of right and wrong. Many had refused to cooperate with the gangs, even at staggering risk to themselves and their children. They endured treacherous journeys to reach the safety of the U.S., during which many do not make it unscathed.
Yet when they arrived, they often did not find the safety they were hoping for. Many were turned away at the port of entry without being able to plead their case, despite the fact that requesting asylum is legal and may be done from anywhere in the U.S.. Some were given an asylum case number but then forced to become homeless in Mexico in dangerous conditions for months or years, waiting for their hearing date that routinely got pushed back each time they managed to show up. Some were taunted and verbally abused by Border Patrol agents, who spit on them, told them they were worthless vermin, and said they would never see their children again. Some children were forcibly removed from their parents, who were the only stability they had left after unimaginable loss. They were all locked up in a detention center in the middle of the remote Texas desert where the water is reportedly so toxic that the townspeople and visitors don’t drink it, but those in detention have no choice. Medical care was limited, difficult to access, and substandard. Some got sick. Some were physically and sexually assaulted. Some died.
Asylum-seeking mothers and children at STFRC come from all over the world. The majority, however, are from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the “Northern Triangle” countries where the common threads of gangs, drug trafficking, weak rule of law, and official corruption make them among the most dangerous countries in the world, especially for women and girls (ranking first, second, and fourth worldwide for female homicides respectively). Hearing many of these women recount their individual experiences provides a devastatingly real look at the personal, human face of those numbers.
The asylum process and requirements in the U.S., are complex and arduous. Many reasons that would prompt any of us to flee our homes are not good enough to qualify for asylum; even a certainty of death won’t do it, without more. The harm must not only be of a particular type, but also on account of a designated reason. You must show that your government is unable or unwilling to protect you, and that relocation within the country is not reasonable. The Trump administration oversaw a serious restricting of the already-limited types of persecution that meet asylum requirements via several controversial Attorney General decisions with language seemingly finely tailored to eliminate the majority of asylum approvals in the U.S. Those decisions unilaterally overturned decades of legal precedent.
Many have called for increased immigration to stave off some of the worst of the challenges the country is facing with its precipitous birth rate decline. When immigrants—who are younger than average and more likely to be in the labor force—get jobs, they contribute to tax and Social Security coffers and remedy a shrinking workforce, and also tend to increase the safety of their communities. Beyond these urgent economic and practical concerns, however, are humanitarian and moral considerations. As a nation, we should consider what values we represent and what example we wish to set for ourselves, our progeny, and the world. We have an obligation to respect and promote the humanity of others. This means—at a minimum—treating people with dignity, following our own existing laws and international human rights law, and structuring our immigration system in a way that promotes the public good. We are currently falling short in each of these areas.
In practical terms, several changes are necessary.
- First, detention of non-criminal immigrants must be eliminated. Homeland Security claims that the system is not intended to be punitive, despite much empirical evidence to the contrary (see also here). Rather, it is purportedly only a mechanism for ensuring that migrants appear in immigration court. Yet the evidence suggests that detention is unnecessary for that purpose and is significantly more expensive and harmful than proven alternatives. When we know we are damaging those we detain—particularly children—we must implement alternatives that do not.
- Second, sufficient resources must be devoted to the immigration court system to clear its 1.3 million case backlog.
- Third, the U.S. Border Patrol is in dire need of overhaul to curb the abuses that are prevalent within the agency.
- Fourth, we must revisit the most damaging recent Attorney General decisions that constricted legal access to asylum.
- Fifth, broad immigration reform is sorely overdue.
In the time my students and I spent at the detention center, we were struck by the shared nature of humanity across background, language, culture, religion, and nation. We experienced a small piece of these women and children’s lives, connecting with them over a common understanding of community, civility, family, friendship, love, and even humor. Their strength and courage was remarkable, and we would be the better for it as a nation if we welcomed those with such character into our ranks. It can be easy to lose sight of the humanity of the people we’re talking about when we remain removed from the reality, debating the issues as political gamesmanship and abstractions. Instead of mothers and fathers, children, siblings, people with talents and dreams, people who laugh and love and care for each other, people who are suffering, we see them simply as numbers and figures, as increases or decreases and dollar signs on charts and graphs. As a nation, we can and must do better than that.
Deborah Anthony, J.D., is a Professor of Legal Studies at UIS. Prior to joining the Legal Studies department, she practiced law serving indigent individuals, where she specialized in family law, domestic violence, civil rights, and housing law, including public and subsidized housing. She currently teaches in the areas of constitutional law, philosophy of law, poverty law, family law, employment discrimination, and public advocacy. Her research interests include modern and historical gender law and politics, feminist perspectives on family law, constitutional law, and employment discrimination.
The views and opinions expressed on the Capitol Connection Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UIS.
If you have questions, feel free to connect with us and request more information!
* Minor details of individual stories have been altered to protect confidentiality.