While families fleeing the Middle East continue to dominate the news, the U.S. government has quietly built a gargantuan detention center for Central American migrants.
It is 104 degrees in Dilley, Texas on this September afternoon. A smattering of saplings struggle to make sense of the dusty clay beneath them. The shade they cast provides little relief to the twenty-four hundred individuals locked away in the world’s largest jail for asylum-seeking women and children.
Ana finds herself nodding off as the post-lunch doldrums hit her in the legal library. It is her three hundred and eightieth day here. Her reading list has evolved over the past thirteen months. She has long outgrown the primers on asylum and refugee law that she used to argue for her release from immigration jail months ago. It seems like every other page of her Bible is earmarked. The margins overflow with notes. Now she finds herself midway through a Spanish translation of Alex Haley’s Roots. “It reminds me that I am part of something longer, bigger,” she says.
But the task of bearing the weight of history, of knowing you are a mere plot device in a grand narrative, is exhausting. So, this afternoon, Ana, who requested that her last name be withheld while her legal case is pending, ignores the fact that she is the last woman still detained since the U.S. government began an experiment of incarcerating families fleeing violence from Central America. She glances at the clock above the Corrections Corporation of America logo emblazoned on the library entryway and chooses to forget that the spinning hands mark the distance between freedom and deportation. History, politics, the future — these are preoccupations for another time. For now, Ana lets herself fade into a daydream about her daughter Katherine’s first day of high school, which she will wrap up in a few hours, alone, in front of a computer, in the secured trailer next door.
* * *
Roadside, Texas’s lone star holds an emphatically bitten chunk of watermelon as the city of Dilley welcomes you to “A Slice of the Good Life.” The near-rhyme betrays Dilley’s aspirational sensibility; for the city of 4,000, crisp melons are a welcome diversion from the relentless heat melting away opportunities, sinking more than 35% of residents under the poverty line. As if lost in its ascent into the country, Dilley sits 85 miles north of movement at the U.S.-Mexico border and 85 miles southwest of modernity in San Antonio. Trapped between the Rio Grande Valley and Texas Hill Country, Dilley hides its identity behind the mask of swirling orange dust storms.
In an attempt at urbanity, the approach to Dilley heading south along Interstate 35 is marked by a series of poles rising 60, 80 feet into the air, topped by neon-coated plastic signage for gasoline and vacant rooms, competing for relevance. A decade ago the incidental promise of fracking fortunes prompted the rapid construction of motels and temporary housing complexes for oilfield workers on rotation. The dream of liquid gold proved hard to grasp. Companies soon learned that the best entry points to displace and capture natural gas from the shale below were miles from Dilley, rendering the prefab oases into spillover.
And yet, for Dilley, there was hope in the spillover too. Those same fracking operations that, upon better judgment, were relocated to surrounding counties all over the state generate millions of gallons of chemically contaminated wastewater each day — the overflow from their drilling rigs. Industrial pumps and endless tubing funnel the murky water into steel cylinders braced on the backs of impossibly large trucks. Drivers haul the poison loads to Dilley and join a queue of others waiting to unload the sloshing mess into any of the several wells in the city that have been repurposed as “disposals” for the toxic mix. The drivers deposit their refuse deep below the Dilley dust, park their hulking machines in a silent motorcade spiraling around motel lots, and take refuge from the silent clay dust clouds of the night.
I arrived at the Days Inn Dilley around midnight in early June, squeezing my hatchback matchbox car into a gap between serpentine monster trucks. The drivers did not stir in their modular rooms; there was no movement, no lights that I could make out through any of the motel windows. No need, I suppose — the night was hardly exceptional. Perhaps they had grown accustomed to the routine such that the lingering question of the meaning, madness or sensibility of the act of depositing poison in the same place where you sleep had been answered. Or had faded. Or had grown inconsequential to reality that, question or not, they would be doing the same tomorrow. Perhaps it was better not to ask questions.
I awoke to harsh slices of white sun cutting through the blinds and across my face. Brushing the ineffective cloth aside, I confronted the morning scene in full. The motel parking lot was empty (my economy-sized rental car even seemed proportional when there was nothing with which to compare it) giving way to layers of horizon — sand, interstate, gas station, sand, sky. Sunrise seemed to have cleared away the poison-water hauling trucks, as if Dilley-by-day could carry on without the reminders of its job by night. Of course, these thoughts were my own, not the city’s. For the city knew that that there was no absence in the light, just a looming shadow.
I showered, assembled myself — shirt, tie, jacket, glasses, shoes — and double-checked my briefcase for my passport and clearances. The electric whirring of the hatchback provided a steady bass for the intermittent cascades of speeding metal that saddled me as I drove along, adjacent to the interstate. Miles of dust upon dust, and as the road began to break from its high-speed companion, settling into its own rhythm, more dust. And then, set back a few hundreds yards from the road, cloaked by a haze of floating sand, rose the mark: a futuristic monument to power with hard red and silver accents — Corrections Corporation of America: The South Texas Family Residential Center.
Here it was. Another one of Dilley’s experiments in spillover.
Rolling another quarter mile past the sign, past rows of white jeeps with U.S. Customs and Border Protection decals on their sides, the fences finally became visible (the main road behind me had long since vanished into the dust). A massive wire wall sprouted from the dead dirt, flatly defining a barrier thousands of feet long, uniformly insurmountable at fifteen feet tall. Just a few feet beyond it, through the metal perforations, sat its mirror, another fence wall — redundancy, security. The dual fences traced the edges of a complex, 50 acres in total. But all that could be seen from here was the endless grid of heads of stadium lights glaring down at the camp, unaware that the sun is watchful during these long days. Rows of flat trailer roofs with ad-hoc piping and wires poked out over the fences, before they too receded into the dust.
Notably invisible in the scene were the two thousand captives, hauled there, bouncing around in secured buses, deposited under the dust clouds and forgotten in favor of the next load.
I entered the labyrinth through a trailer on the side. Remove your jacket, your watch, your keys. Who are you? Declare yourself. Where’s your ID? And your clearance? Who authorized this clearance? Really? I will be checking with headquarters on that. Wait here. Move to the side. You will now be wanded. Everything out of your pockets. Pass through the detector again. We will be searching your bag. You are only allowed one electronic device. What do you need so many pens for? How long will you be here? Three months? Ha. You can’t record anything. Got it? Press that button for permission to open the door. Walk straight, nowhere else.
I spun and tumbled out of the security checkpoint into an identical trailer, sterile, hollow, filled with the artificial cold of synthetic air. My “office.” I had come here as part of the pro-bono representation provided by five non-profit legal services groups, including my own, Immigrant Justice Corps. I was in the heart of America’s most precarious and novel idea of jail. As I looked to the back of the trailer to see rows of chairs filled with dozens of young women, toddlers and pre-teens, my mandate as a legal advocate on-the-ground finally became clear: get them out.
* * *
While harrowing stories of Syrian refugees charting dangerous paths to safety into Europe have recently become headline news, the U.S. has quietly watched as hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have fled their homes in search of refuge over the past three years. Weak and corrupt national governments in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have all but ceded control to murderous gangs who have responded to their increased power and influence with greater bloodshed. The three nations are joined by their neighbors, Venezuela and Belize, as the five countries with the highest murder rates on earth.
The U.S. government’s silent gaze soon transformed into a violent denial, as more and more Central Americans sought safety at the U.S.-Mexico border. Over the course of several weeks (or months) refugees would traverse variations of a 2,000-mile path by foot, atop trains and squeezed into buses, through mountains, desert, and urban sprawl, punctuated by the changing tags of ruling cartels. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) invested hundreds of millions of dollars in increased border security, weapons, drones, surveillance and training in Mexico in order to detain and deport refugees before they could ever make it to the U.S. and seek assistance. For those that did finally make it to the States, the government had a solution to their troubles: incarceration.
The U.S. government operates hundreds of immigration detention centers — generally, extensions to or repurposed prisons — to hold non-citizens in the deportation proceedings. But a policy decision by the Obama administration to put newly arrived Central American refugees on the fast-track for deportation rather than on a path for asylum protection has filled these centers to the brim, creating pressure to deport individuals as quickly as possible and to build even more of these human warehouses. But as more and more refugees arrived with young children in tow, the administration realized that detaining kids in prisons would put them in violation of established legal standards.
So in the summer of 2014 the Obama administration began its program of “family detention” in Artesia, New Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security’s detention and deportation apparatus, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), converted a federal agent training facility into a secured unit to hold, process and deport hundreds of Central American mothers and their children. “Family,” as defined by DHS, did not include fathers, husbands or adult brothers who were forcibly separated from their children, spouses, and sisters and detained in “regular” detention facilities elsewhere. The administration argued that the “camp” was not a “prison,” and, therefore, could be used to confine the otherwise un-confineable children. The government had managed to figure out how to account for their human spillover now that they had run out of detention cells.
They had successfully built “baby jail.”
The facility was constructed and operated with no public oversight for several weeks (a black hole period during which an unknown number of families were deported) before a few public-interest immigration lawyers got word of what was going on. The advocates described arriving to a scene of utter despair: refugees caged in trailers, their movement restricted, denied adequate food, and pressured by immigration officials to sign deportation orders even though they had the legal right to seek asylum protection. In a November 2014 statement, DHS maintained that, “ICE ensures that these residential centers operate in an open environment, which includes medical care, play rooms, social workers, educational services, and access to legal counsel.”
The subtext of the DHS statement was that in constructing a facility hours away from the nearest large city, let alone major media market, it was not very feasible for anyone to investigate the validity of their claims or suggest otherwise.
The advocates were not deterred.
The lawyers set up a lean legal clinic in the middle of the desert to represent detained families in asserting their international legal right to protection. The lawyers were able to step in on hundreds of cases, presenting evidence of the persecution these families faced if they were deported to Central America, staving off the speedy mass deportations.
But the government did not relent. Now that there were human rights lawyers on the ground, they would at least entertain these requests for asylum. But the legal process is long and winding. A case could take months to decide. DHS announced that while these cases moved through the courts, these families must remain detained — as a matter of national security— and if they lost, they would be deported immediately. While visiting Artesia in July 2014, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, declared, “Our border is not open to illegal immigration. Our message to those who come illegally is we will send you back. This facility represents proof that, indeed, we will send people back.”
In imposing “family detention,” the government sought to use the images and experiences of detainees as an example to those still living in Central America, considering fleeing. “It is part of DHS’ sustained and aggressive campaign to stem the tide of illegal migration from Central America,” the Secretary remarked later in the month. The suffering of detained families was a powerful and intentionally cultivated messaging tool. In December, Johnson put it bluntly: “l believe this is an effective deterrent.” And so as “family detention” morphed from a deportation mill to a war of attrition, the ad-hoc “camp” in Artesia gave way to the $240 million dollar Corrections Corporation of America “South Texas Family Residential Center” in Dilley.
This was history that I, an immigrants’ rights legal advocate, had inherited as I arrived in South Texas to join the legal team, to fight back against the deportation machine.
* * *
The stories were of rape. And murder. And extortion. Kidnapping, mutilation, beheadings, blackmail, and slavery. Corruption, assault, massacre and trafficking. The stories were of violence, and pain, and suffering. These are the experiences, memories, and fears that had motivated twenty-four hundred mothers (average age, 26 and children (average age, seven) to abandon their homes, cities and countries to traverse thousands of miles of unknown and persist amidst the roving drones watching overhead, the click of rifles pointed at their heads, the loss of sensation against the pressure of zip-tie handcuffs, and the fenced-in cages of confinement they occupied today.
These were part one of the stories.
Part two generally went something like this: We’ve been here three weeks, two months, five months, now. My son doesn’t eat anymore, he’s lost more than a third of his body weight. The doctors refuse to see my daughter — she vomited blood last night. They’ve both developed asthma; they can’t breathe in all of this dust and inside these tiny boxes. The officers call me a bitch and a slut and don’t stop yelling at me. I am scared. What will happen to us? When will they decide on our case? What more do I need to do? We came here seeking help, but we are in jail like we are criminals. What for? Will we die in here?
And then part three would usually go: I am never returning to my country. I don’t care how long it takes.
Meeting after meeting, they were resolute: they had faced death, threats, dehydration, extortion and kidnapping on their journeys. Incarceration at the hands of the world’s richest country felt cruel, but it too would pass, they assured me. They spoke as if the prospective future, the one in which they would reunite with their friends and family who had made lives in the U.S., join them in their homes and raise their own children in safety, already existed. That it was merely a question of time. Their perspective, their unwavering belief that this simple justice of an opportunity to live a “normal” life would inevitably prevail, provided them with the cool detachment to somehow withstand the 24-hour surveillance, endless verbal abuse, absolute denial of agency and restricted movement to which they were subjected. They listened intently to the legal mechanics I would review with them — how to present their testimony, the substance of the evidence packets they would offer to the judge, the “nexus” requirements to win an asylum claim — steadfastly confident in a future in which they were thriving that awaited them.
Yet, every few days, their courageous belief would collide with the manufactured reality of “family detention.” A woman would enter the legal trailer and make her way to a small side room with me. We would sit down. She would look at me, half-expecting the words I would say, but still grasping the last handholds of her vision of prosaic American bliss. “I’m sorry,” I would begin. We filed the appeal, but today we received word that it will not be accepted. The judge’s order is final: you and your children will be deported back to your country. I know that you and your family faced threats and violence there, but the courts have decided that you did not suffer in the right way, for the right reasons to be worthy of protection.” I would tell her that the government has determined that amid the thousands of square miles of empty space that surrounded us here in South Texas, there was no room for her and no time for her safety. That as hard as we tried, there was nothing more we could do. That she would be sent home. That I wished her the best of luck. That I was sorry.
With tears or a placid face of shock, she would nod. No longer in the room but in a memory that suddenly is becoming real again, she would silently rise from the chair and exit the office. She would slide across the legal trailer, alone, dozens of eyes fixed on her. She would become a ghost, a harbinger that the others could sense, realizing that they could be she but insistent that they will not. In attempting to erase her completely, the government left her shadow behind; it would loom long and large, tempering spirits, dampening hopes.
Just as the shadow would begin to fade, lit out of its morose frame by the optimism of short memories, the next deportation would fall. And then the next. The threat was never far away. And in some ways, it functioned as a release valve when weeks would go by without a coming or a going. When the prospect of motion seemed foreclosed altogether, and the whispers would begin: Will we end up like Ana?
* * *
To be clear, there was nothing inevitable about the mass detention of refugee families. Since the United States signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, individuals fleeing persecution in their home countries have had the right to arrive to the U.S. and affirmatively request asylum protection. The implementation schemes of asylum and refugee policy have adapted to realities of different waves of movement and humanitarian crises, but with the exception of Central Americans, those seeking asylum protection while already in the United States have been able to join family or enter shelters in the U.S. while moving forward with their applications.
Between 1980 and 1990, more than 700,000 Central Americans arrived to the U.S., many fleeing violent civil wars and oppressive autocratic regimes (several of which were financed and supported by the U.S.). For the first time, to curb and deter the flow, the U.S. government constructed large-scale detention camps to detain and deport asylum-seekers. The mass-detention program included specialized warehouses to hold unaccompanied minors. Legal advocates charged that the incarceration of asylum seekers was especially perverse when applied to children whose age made them physically and psychologically vulnerable. Through a 1997 legal settlement (known as the Flores Settlement), the government agreed to end its practice of warehousing children.
However, in 2008, the DHS incarcerated a group of refugee children with their parents in a detention facility in Texas — the first detention scheme designed for families since the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Allegations of pervasive sexual misconduct and abuse at the facility pressured the government to close it in 2009. But in 2014, the Obama administration again reneged on Flores with the creation of “family detention” facilities in Artesia, Dilley and others in Karnes City, Texas and Berks County, Pennsylvania.
Advocates revived the Flores litigation upon the administration’s massive expansion of “family detention,” suing the government for its disregard for established legal standards for the care and treatment of immigrant children and their families. Lawyers and activists, including myself, filed formal complaints with the investigative body of DHS regarding the abysmal conditions of confinement, the psychological repercussions of incarceration for children, the inadequate medical care provided to families, the denial of due process, and the culture of impunity that empowered officers to abuse and threaten those detained. The Department remained silent, until the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights issued a report suggesting that the conditions of family detention were often worse than the conditions in the countries from which the families had fled. Only in the wake of this scalding public condemnation did the DHS issue a statement — a pro forma commitment to make “improvements when appropriate.”
Expectedly, the legal maneuvering — negotiations between government lawyers adamant that the reinstatement of a refugee detention policy was essential to protect national security and deter “migrants,” and human rights lawyers insistent on the fundamental right to freedom that must be respected for those fleeing violence — brought little progress. After a year of back and forth discussions, in July 2015 a federal judge in California issued a ruling against the government, suggesting that the facilities would either need to be shut down or radically changed in order to comply with Flores. The DHS interpreted the ambiguity of the decision to suggest that detention could remain justified for certain families, for certain lengths of time — but provided little insight into their reasoning.
* * *
I heard about Ana from many of the other detained mothers. Ana was something of a legend to them: she and her daughter had been detained since the beginning, since Artesia. Neither released nor deported, Ana was the living, breathing history of the “family detention” purgatory. More than a year of incarceration in this brand new idea of jail, but it wasn’t until the final week of July that Ana came to the legal trailer herself and requested to speak with me.
“Excuse me, may I ask you a question.”
“I read the news that a judge ordered this facility to close. I know that it is not so easy. I do not have any expectations. But I have seen many families released in the past few days. So I want to know for myself, is it true?” Ana’s eyes sat in deep wells beneath her brow, the surface of which had the impressions of stripes developed from the repeated gestures of stress that had been sternly instructed to relax. She wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail and spoke deliberately through thin lips that creased towards a gentle, resigned smile. She sat upright, her posture conveying familiarity with power.
I returned her gaze, reflecting my hesitation by breaking the contact before I spoke. “Unfortunately, it is not quite clear.” I paused, thinking of how to return the answer with more reassurance. “We are filing requests for the immediate release of every one that we meet with to the government, and I would be happy to do the same for you. But there are no guarantees.”
She nodded. “I’ve been detained for more than one year. I arrived to Artesia before there were lawyers and I argued my own case. They told me they would deport me every day that I was there. But here I am, still here. I know there are no guarantees.”
I understood Ana’s affirmation — that within the mess of this labyrinth, dictated by ever-fuzzy rules and the whims of judges, lawyers and politicians thousands of miles away, in which individual is set face-to-face with “policy objectives,” the best you could do was to yell a bit, make yourself heard. I opened my laptop as Ana pulled out an accordion folder of case files.
She had begun her journey during the dark days of Artesia, watching as family after family were pulled from their bunks in the middle of the night and thrown onto buses. Ana pulled enough from the Spanish translations of asylum law textbooks that sat in the moldy trailer “library” to deliver testimony that got her through for her first asylum interview. Ana’s husband and mother-in-law, living in Long Island, reached out to a lawyer in their town who agreed to represent her, remotely, if her family could cover his $15,000 fee. It seemed impossible with the fast food salary they lived on, but with the violent threat of deportation looming on the other side, what choice did they have?
Four months, a set of transfers from Artesia to Karnes to Dilley, and dozens of money orders later, Ana’s day in court arrived: but her lawyer did not. It was not until after her final order of deportation had been signed by the immigration judge that her family learned that the lawyer who now held a year’s worth of their salary had never before practiced immigration law and did not ever speak with Ana or personally prepare any of the court filings. They had been defrauded. Ana and Katherine, thirteen years old at the time, were to be removed, placed on a plane and sent back to El Salvador immediately.
A member of the detention representation legal team had seen what transpired in court and helped to assemble an emergency “stay of removal” — a last-minute request for a delay — to buy enough time to assemble an appeal of the decision, given the poor performance and fraudulence of Ana’s lawyer. Immigration officials resisted, threatening Ana that she would be deported sooner or later, but ultimately relented. The appeal was filed; Ana and Katherine had been sitting in the Dilley dust ever since.
I confirmed the facts with Ana sent the request for her release to ICE. “They are going to make me wait now,” she said. I nodded. “They’ve been trying to break me with waiting for a year now. What’s new?”
* * *
Over the next six weeks, hundreds of refugee families were released from Dilley. Some new arrivals would spend less than a week in the facility before joining their families all over the United States. The court order had changed the texture of the detention operation, but Secretary Johnson confirmed the administration was not pleased with the decision: “We are taking steps to ensure compliance with … orders issued by the U.S. District Court,” but that “we disagree with portions of the legal reasoning in the decision and have filed a notice of appeal preserving our ability to challenge those portions.” The releases reflected no change in ideology, but a calculated riposte by the state. Though some families were quickly released, many others were deported before we could properly represent them. Just another perverse spin on “progress.”
And still, some things stayed the same: Ana and Katherine remained detained.
ICE had offered no response to the request for Ana and Katherine’s immediate release, instead processing, detaining and deporting more and more families. Every few days Ana would come to check in with me, reacting to the changes she saw around her, resigned to her stagnant reality, reminding me that the logic of detention relied on the cancellation of time. “They threatened me with deportation each day until so much time passed that I became numb. Now with these new families, here for two or three days, they use the hope of quickly uniting with their families to make the time they stay in detention even more painful. They are always playing tricks on our minds so that we will tell others not to come.”
I was anxious. The final day of my assignment in Dilley arrived. The non-stop fight against a system so opaque, that hides behind rules, procedures and protocols to execute the violence of exile had left me physically and emotionally spent. The belief in the inevitability of a positive future that so many of the families held onto felt far away for me, as I was unsure whether the situation in Dilley was any better than when I had arrived. I had told Ana of my upcoming departure, frustrated that she would outlast me as she had everyone else, apologetic that I would be leaving that toxic shadow city, not her. She told me it was alright, that it would coincide with Katherine’s first day of high school — albeit in a secured trailer in “baby jail” — and that these little markers of time and events were important to her. That just as the Obama administration had a plan for her, by continuing to grasp on to her there, so too did God. She had faith.
* * *
I pack away my laptop for the last time and gaze at my final swirling orange dust storm out of the legal trailer. The struggling saplings are relieved of their impossible task, for the sun has set and Dilley is cast in full shadow. Most of my colleagues have departed, bid their goodbyes, wishing me well, hoping to see me again in any place but Dilley.
I throw the bag over my shoulder, thinking whether there is anything I’ve left behind — or rather, anything I’ve left behind which I can still recover — when a portly immigration officer stops me.
“Mr. Mehta, Ana and Katherine, have been approved for release by the Department of Homeland Security headquarters.” He nods once, perhaps to confirm the statement. Or more likely, out of habit as a messenger detached from the meaning of his words. He pivots on his back heel, walks with efficiency to the back door and disappears into the dust.
* * *
It’s an October afternoon, but the bite I feel in each of my joints reminds me that New York has a way of transforming fall days into sudden winter punishment. Today marks the court-ordered deadline for the DHS to comply with Flores — to shut down “family detention.” But Secretary Johnson’s promise of appeal ensures that nothing has changed in Texas.
I’m on my way to see Ana for the first time since we left Dilley, together. It’s been six weeks since the shock, disbelief, denial and, finally, her supplication to God in a moment of unfiltered joy. Six weeks since she joined her husband and mother-in-law in Long Island, embracing as if to squeeze out all of the longing accumulated over the near-decade of separation. Six weeks since Katherine began day two of high school surrounded by hundreds of other teens.
I’m meeting Ana at Columbia University, where she is addressing an auditorium full of scholars, advocates, students and journalists. She is dressed in an elegant black turtleneck. Her eyes are painted and shadowed so as to hide all that they have seen from the audience. She humbles the packed room with her powerful pose. Though seated, she gently pulls the room’s attention to her unshakeable confidence.
She tells them that it has been six weeks of “freedom” after thirteen months of confinement but that this “freedom” remains confined. Confined by the silence of the state to her every request to understand why she was released, when her case will be resolved, if this process will ever end. Confined by a GPS ankle monitor that tracks her every step, that alerts her overseers to her every movement, that bruises her leg so badly that they have succeeded in immobilizing her once again. She tells them that this is not over, neither for her nor the thousands of other that are still detained. She tells them she will keep fighting. And she asks them to keep fighting too. Then she pauses, breathes in, and smiles.
When she is done and the soggy-eyed audience find their way out of the auditorium, she catches my eye and exhales: “Tell me, how does this end?”
* * *
Ilana Panich-Linsman is a visual journalist based in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and other respected news outlets. Visit her website to see more of her work; follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ilanapl.