Trump recently signed an executive order to stop the separation of children from their parents, announcing: “We’re going to keep families together but we still have to maintain toughness.” For those of us who have been horrified to hear of children being torn from their parents’ arms, this news may feel like a victory. But as this new executive order makes clear, Trump is replacing family separation with indefinite family detention. Instead of locking up parents and children separately, he will be locking them up together for months, even years, violating the terms of the Flores Settlement Agreement which mandates that children must be held in the least restrictive settings.
To give a sense of what long-term family detention involves, I want to share excerpts from posts I wrote a couple of years ago recounting the story of my dear friend Alta Gracias (a pseudonym). She spent almost a year in a family detention center with her three children and was only released after successfully fighting her asylum case while behind bars. These family facilities have existed for a long time and continue to be an inhumane response to individuals and families seeking protection. Since these posts were originally written, I have become a mother myself. My two-year-old daughter is now the same age Alta Gracias’ youngest son when they were first detained. My daughter loves to run, play and explore the world around her. I cannot imagine what a year behind bars would do to her spirit. Children do not belong in prisons, whether they are with their families or not.
On Friday I went to visit my friend Alta Gracias and her three children at Karnes County Residential Center, where they have been locked up for the past two months. I was accompanied by a volunteer from the Hutto Visitation Program, a community group in Texas that has visited detained immigrants since 2009. We drove about three hours into Southern Texas, past oil derricks, cotton fields, and small, economically depressed towns. The Karnes facility, originally constructed as a model center for the detention of adult migrants, was repurposed this summer and began detaining families last month.
Upon arrival, I turned in my ID and was given a visitors badge. At the direction of the guards, I proceeded through a metal detector and two locked doors into the visitation room, taking nothing with me except quarters for the vending machine. The two older children, 10-year-old Ana and 9-year-old Victor (not their real names) were bouncing with excitement to see me. As soon as the door to the visitation room locked behind me, four small arms wrapped around me and two heads burrowed into my sides. When they finally let go, Alta Gracias’ hug felt no less desperate. As we sat down at a table to visit, Ana snuggled up close to me, my arm around her shoulders, until the visitation guard told me that the little girl needed to sit on her own chair. The desperation of the children’s need for comfort spoke volumes about the depth of their suffering during their dangerous journey north, in the week they spent sleeping on the floor in crowded and freezing holding cells at the border, and during two months of waiting, trapped at the detention center.
Alta Gracias and her children are being held for crossing the border without documentation, fleeing extreme violence in the coastal part of El Salvador they call home. While children who cross the border alone are quickly released to relatives or sponsors while they go through immigration hearings, children who come with their parents are locked up in family detention centers like Karnes, which holds 550 mothers with children as young as two months old. They are held in these facilities while they go through the slow legal process of determining whether they have a possible asylum case or not. Those who manage to convince judges of the viability of their asylum claims may then have the opportunity to negotiate bonds under which they can be released from detention while awaiting further hearings.
Alta Gracias told me that, in her case, immigration officials had told her this process could take up to six months. That means four more months of incarceration, of institutional life, of heavily processed food, of sharing a living space (four bunk beds, one shower, and one toilet) with two other families. With fierce determination on her face, Alta Gracias told me that this was a sacrifice she was willing to make for the wellbeing of her children, for a future free of the constant threat of violence. Her children are already suffering the consequences of their incarceration: 10-year-old Ana has angry outbursts or fits of sobbing almost every day, 9-year-old Victor has become sullen and withdrawn, and 2-year-old Martín takes out his frustration by hitting other children. All of them have lost weight.
The experiences of Alta Gracias and her children are not unique. In a statement, the ACLU summarized research and reports on past family detention: “History shows us that imprisoning families limits access to due process, harms the physical and mental health of parents and children, and undermines family structure by stripping parents of their authority.” The United Nations is also opposed to the incarceration of children, stating: “detention of children on the sole basis of their migration status or that of their parents is a violation of children’s rights, is never in their best interests and is not justifiable”.
How is the continued incarceration of these children justified? The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for immigration oversight, has argued that these women and children must be detained because they constitute an indirect national security threat. They seem to have decided that the solution to increasing migration from Central America is to lock up women and children, attempting to turn their suffering into a deterrent of further migration, rather than taking a serious look at the root causes of this exodus and our role in creating the situation in the first place. So families like Alta Gracias and her children pay the price for a history of U.S. involvement in Central America that has prioritized economics and politics over people.
The incarceration of these families is yet another policy that puts economic gain first. The detention centers where these women and children are locked up are all run by private corporations like Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). For these corporations, which have recently been averaging $5 billion in annual profit from immigrant detention, the increase of refugees from Central America presents a new source of revenue. Through their powerful Washington lobbies, which in 2005 spent more than Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo combined, these corporations have sold for-profit detention as the solution to the border crisis.
As a result of this lobbying, for-profit incarceration of immigrant women and children is increasing sharply. The Department of Homeland Security announced plans to open a new center in the remote town of Dilley in South Texas. The facility, which will be operated by CCA, is planned to open in November and will have beds for 2,400 women and children, making it the largest immigrant detention facility in the nation. In addition to the new detention facilities in Karnes, TX and Artesia, NM, this plan increases family detention from 90 beds to almost 4,000 beds since June of this year. This rapid expansion means that many more families like Alta Gracias and her children will be incarcerated, in the largest trend of family detention since the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
At the end of our visit, Ana wanted to know when I would be coming to visit them again. Alta Gracias told me that, before my visit, the little girl had thought I would be staying with them for several days, as I always did when I visited them in El Salvador. Ana had been worried that there wasn’t enough space for me in their crowded living quarters. For my part, I had been worried that the children would ask me to take them with me when I left, to get them out of detention. But they didn't, and in some ways that silence was even more devastating because it suggested that they children had started to think of prison as the normal place for them to be. As I walked free at the end of the day, leaving Alta Gracias and her children behind, I was weighed down by the knowledge that legacies of trauma sprung from imprisonment would continue lay claim to ever more children until the practice of family detention is ended.
Last Friday I went back to the Karnes County Residential Center, the euphemistic name given to the for-profit prison where 500 refugee mothers and children are being held. I was there to visit my dear friend Alta Gracias, who has been locked up in this facility for nine months with her three young children. When they first arrived at Karnes in August 2014, her youngest son Martín was only two and just starting to talk. Now, he has celebrated his third birthday behind bars and talks a blue streak. When I saw him last week, it was clear that he had adapted to life in jail. He knows everyone and everyone knows him: the other families held at the detention center have become his community. But he also knew that the guards were to be feared and their orders quickly obeyed, things no three-year-old should have to understand.
The two older children, ages 9 and 10, still remember life outside this prison. They remember what it is like to be free and long for this freedom. Formerly bright and energetic students, they have lost interest in their studies. In nine months, they have seen so many other families come and go, and yet they remain locked up. Their eyes now hold a hopelessness far beyond their years. Their rambunctious energy and inquisitive spirits are slowly fading away with each day that they spend behind bars. Nine months of detention have also aged their mother, deepening worry lines and bringing out dark circles under her eyes from night after sleepless night worrying about the fate of her family.
The suffering that has been caused by this prolonged detention has been paid for by our tax dollars. The U.S. Senate estimates that it costs $266 per day per person to hold someone in these family detention facilities. Over nine months, that amounts to $287,280 to lock up Alta Gracias and her three children: over $70,000 to keep a three-year-old behind bars.
However, nine months of detention has also been an incubator that has given birth to increasing organization by the detained families. Last month, these mothers launched a series of hunger strikes as part of a campaign for their release. They have worked hard to get the word out about their situation, releasing joint statements and writing letters. Following the lead of these courageous women, a movement to end family detention is gaining momentum across the nation. Dedicated volunteers in Southern Texas have been regularly driving miles out into the countryside to visit detained families and keep an eye on the conditions in which they are being held. During the hunger strike, many gathered outside the detention facilities in solidarity vigils or participated in a solidarity fast from around the country.
After I had finished visiting Alta Gracias and was waiting outside Karnes for others in my group to finish their visits, I looked up to see a young woman and a little boy walk out of the doors of the detention center. She had tears in her eyes and he looked stunned and slightly frightened. It turned out that they had just been released after two months in detention and needed to wait a few hours for their ride to arrive. To fill the time, we decided to drive with them to a nearby park. As soon as he climbed out of the car, the little boy’s face lit up. He took off running across the grass to the playground, and for the next 45 minutes he didn’t stop. He climbed and went down the slide and ran to the swings and then back to the monkey bars, all the while with a huge smile across his face. He was free!
About the author
Lynnette Arnold is a linguistic anthropologist and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University. Her research involves Salvadoran migration to the United States, with a focus on the experiences of families, many of whom she first met during the four year she spent living and working in El Salvador.