Despite Warnings, Trump Moves to Expand Migrant Family Detention
DILLEY, Tex. — On a burning hot day last summer at the South Texas Family Residential Center, a federal detention facility for immigrant families, Kenia and her son, Michael, 11, were hunched over a foosball table in an air-conditioned recreation room when Michael dropped to the floor and started sobbing. He curled his body into a ball and writhed as if he were in pain.
The other parents and children in the room looked up from their jump ropes and boomboxes as Kenia knelt down and pleaded into Michael’s ear: Would he please go back to their room before the guards noticed him?
“I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here,” Michael shouted, his eyes clenched.
The date of this particular meltdown, Kenia can’t remember — not because it wasn’t memorable, but because it was one of many times her son broke down during the four months they were detained after arriving in the United States.
Kenia also felt like she was falling apart, unsure of what would happen to them. Guards had warned her that if Michael continued to misbehave, they would be punished, which she assumed meant being sent back to Honduras.
“We were always being watched,” she said.
The experiences of migrant families like Kenia’s who were held for months behind the locked gates of a secure facilty offer insight into what thousands of others could face if the Trump administration succeeds in creating one of the few long-term incarceration systems for families in the developed world.
Amid a wide-ranging campaign to discourage migration to the United States, President Trump has vowed repeatedly to end the practice he calls “catch and release,” under which migrants are allowed to live freely in the United States while their lengthy immigration cases are in process.
The administration wants to expand the system of secure facilities where migrant families can be incarcerated for months or longer. In late November, Justice Department lawyers appealed a federal judge’s decision that blocked the government’s attempt to eliminate a 20-day time limit on most family detentions.
If the appeal is successful, Kenia and Michael’s experience of being detained for months — the result of a legal fluke that left them institutionalized far longer than current standards allow — could become the norm. Facilities like the one at Dilley, which is run by the private prison company, CoreCivic, could multiply to incarcerate more than 15,000 parents and children across the country.
The practice of jailing migrant families has been fiercely debated over three administrations, in part because of years of scientific consensus that detaining children, even with their parents, can cause permanent developmental damage.
“They have more difficulty learning, they have more difficulty socializing,” said Amy J. Cohen, a child psychiatrist who works with the organization Physicians for Human Rights and has served as an adviser on legal cases over family detention.
Research at existing family detention centers found heightened levels of stress, which can damage neurons and lead to smaller brain masses in children who have been detained for long periods.
After controlling for trauma, age and country of origin, Dr. Cohen said, “It becomes extremely clear that it is detention which is the variable which is creating, literally, mental illness in these children.”
The Trump administration says that conditions in the family facilities are better than what many migrants left in their home countries, and last year it announced a plan to more than quintuple the number of family detention beds in the country. There is currently space for about 3,500 detainees at the three existing centers in Pennsylvania and Texas.
Canada and much of Europe process migrant families in the way the United States does currently, with most detained only temporarily on the way into or out of the country. Under the Trump administration’s plan, the United States would join Australia to become only the second country in the world with a policy to detain migrant families through the end of their legal cases — often for months or years.
Kenia and Michael were among dozens of families who lived at the South Texas Family Residential Center for months beyond the legal limit of 20 days because they had previously been separated under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy and were being held while their lawyers sued the government over their asylum cases.
The New York Times was allowed during a visit to Dilley to interview two parents who were detained there with their children. Kenia and Michael were interviewed after they were released. All of the families asked that their last names not be used in order to avoid endangering themselves or their immigration cases.
Within days of their arrival, the parents said a comfortable facade began to crumble. They held their breath inside the smelly cafeteria and waited in long lines in the heat to get medicine for fevers or colds. Their children resisted going to school after they discovered the curriculum repeated after 20 days. During school hours, the mothers could meet with their lawyers or knit for hours. Sometimes Zumba class was offered.
The weeks felt like months, they said, and boredom and uncertainty weighed on them constantly.
A woman named Cindy who was detained at Dilley for four months before being released said her 8-year-old son Jostin refused to eat while they were there and would vomit when she tried to force him into the dining hall.
Another, Patricia, said her daughter Christy had tried to kill herself inside the facility and was put on anti-anxiety medication and sedatives. Once a bubbly teenager, Christy cried every day they were detained and suffered from dizzy spells because she also refused to eat, her mother said.
“It’s like I don’t know her anymore. She has changed so much,” Patricia said.
Kenia and Michael landed in Dilley in July 2018 after they left Honduras to get away from a man who Kenia said had started to stalk her. He physically attacked her and threatened to kill her and Michael. When she threatened to go to the police, the man told Kenia that the police were his friends.
They escaped to the United States. And though he had struggled in the months leading up to their detention at Dilley, within days of arriving at the five-acre compound southwest of San Antonio surrounded by a high concrete-and-chain-link fence, he began to unravel. He blamed Kenia for their detention but, after he saw her scolded by guards, declared that she was clearly not in charge and refused to listen to her.
“The more I would try to calm him down,” Kenia said, “the worse he would get.”
Other families were struggling, too, and the children’s outbursts seemed to trigger one another.
A 6-year-old boy living in their dorm repeatedly grabbed his mother by the hair, choked her and threatened to kill her in front of the roommates, Kenia said. The boy’s mother explained to the group they had fled Guatemala to get away from his father, who had done the same thing to her in front of the boy.
Reforms and a Bleak Assessment
Unlike other types of migrant detention centers that have drawn scrutiny for their conditions — like Border Patrol stations and children’s shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services — the facilities used for longer-term detention of families have received little public attention.
Established at a site in Pennsylvania under President George W. Bush, they were initially seen by some as a way to help incoming migrants by providing shelter and food to people who arrived without plans for how they would establish themselves.
But after an unexpected surge in families crossing the border, officials began to suggest that incarcerating the migrants for long periods of time could be an effective way to discourage others from following behind them.
Two new detention facilities were opened in Texas in 2006 and New Mexico in 2014; both closed after lawsuits and government inspections found that children were rapidly losing weight because of inedible food and poor medical care.
The scrutiny prompted changes to the standards for family detention. Tiny prison uniforms for children were replaced with T-shirts and jeans, and private bathrooms were installed in place of open-air, mixed-gender toilets. The current standards require schooling that follows state education standards and on-site medical care.
Jeh Johnson, who served as Homeland Security secretary under President Barack Obama, created an advisory committee of experts to suggest reforms that would make the system even more humane.
Instead, they concluded that there was no safe way to detain families and in 2016 voted unanimously to recommend that the system be shut down.
Expanding the System
The plans to phase out family detention that began to take shape during the final months of the Obama administration were immediately reversed when Mr. Trump took office.
The administration sought funds from Congress to expand family detention, but so far the requests have been blocked by the Democratic-controlled House.
The focus has since turned back to continuing litigation over legal restrictions on family detention that the administration is seeking to undo. The appeal filed in late November could eventually reach the Supreme Court, which now has a conservative majority.
Problems in the facilities persist. A toddler’s mother filed suit against the government last year, claiming mistreatment and neglect after her 20-month-old daughter, Mariee Juarez, died of a respiratory illness she caught at Dilley.
Late this summer, Matthew Albence, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, led reporters around the Dilley complex, saying he was “extremely comfortable and extremely proud” of the facility.
He and his staff pointed out a library stacked with books and spacious dodge ball courts. “I would say many of these kids, it’s probably the first time they’ve had their own bed, it’s probably the first time that any of them have had access to medical. We know for sure it’s the first time that many of them have had a dental exam,” he said, referring to the conditions that the families had fled.
“This is a very nurturing environment,” he said.
‘He’s Angry Every Day’
After they were released from Dilley in November of last year, Kenia and Michael moved into an apartment in New York paid for by donations to an immigrant advocacy organization started by her lawyer, Kate Chaltain, and her friend, Jean Kim Chaix, after they met Kenia and Michael.
Michael’s mood swings have not improved. Kenia worries the months they spent detained permanently changed him.
“He’s angry every day. He just wants to be alone,” Kenia said. In their home country, he had loved to socialize and play sports with friends. But since they left Dilley, she said, “No park, no friends, he doesn’t want to do anything.”
They are both attending weekly therapy, also paid for by donations, to work through the effects of their detention.
Because Kenia does not have a work permit, she could not afford a present for Michael’s 12th birthday in August. Instead, she presented him with an almond cake from the grocery store and asked him to take a picture to send to their family in Honduras.
Michael had another outburst. He refused the picture and yelled at Kenia. They both started crying and Michael shoved his cake on to the floor.
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