The Uncertainty and Trauma of Family Detention
In late February 2019, I toured two family immigration detention centers in South Texas—one for women and their children in Dilley and the other for men and their sons in Karnes City—with advocates from Human Rights First.
As I met the families held there and heard their stories, what struck me most about their experiences is the unabating swirl of uncertainty. The uncertainty in their home countries due to the violence, political unrest, and extortion that push them to flee. The uncertainty surrounding the journey to the United States: not knowing who can be trusted, if there will be food and water for their families, or if they’ll make it to the U.S. border at all. And of course, the uncertainty once they get to the United States: Will they be separated from their children? Will they be forced to go home?
This uncertainty is what I saw etched in the faces of the people I spoke with—the women who made the treacherous journeys with their children and the children who saw parents demoralized, discriminated against, and generally disempowered.
One woman who fled domestic violence in Honduras had to choose between taking her son and her daughter with her. She ultimately decided it was more dangerous for her daughter to stay behind. As a result of the abuse at home and the violence along the way, her adorable two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, whom I saw playing vivaciously around the room, is terrified of men.
Another woman from Mexico said Customs & Border Protection (CBP) officers harassed and taunted her and her eight and nine-year-old daughters about being Mexican, told them they won’t be able to stay in the United States when she asked for asylum and that they might as well turnaround and go home. Her daughters, not understanding the source of the vitriol, sobbed both at the time and remembering the event. They asked their distraught mother why this man hated Mexicans—and them—so much. That’s hard to explain to an adult, let alone a traumatized child.
The description of the CBP facility that serves as the first stop for families arriving at our border was chilling—literally, since these cells are kept very uncomfortably cold. The families have no sense of how long they will be staying —often for days and days. Children may be separated for a time and return to their parents traumatized, or they may not return to their parents at all.
One woman fled Central America with four of her children, but her 18-year-old son was taken to a facility for adult men, where he will have to advocate for himself. This frightens her for a number of reasons, not least the fact that he is “quiet,” and she fears he will not speak up. And who could blame her? As the mother of a 17-year-old boy, I cannot imagine her son being prepared to make his way through a complex, unwelcoming system that really does not want him here in the first place. And this does not even take into account the trauma he experienced at home and on the journey.
At the Dilley detention facility, one critical problem children face is a lack of access to appropriate medical care. With only one pediatrician on staff and 848 children detained there on the day I visited, it’s easy to see the problem. There were several pediatricians traveling with us—including Dr. Colleen Kraft, past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics—who have taken on the issue of the physical and psychological harm of detaining children. There is no question that children don’t get the care they need in detention.
The families who are released from detention try to start new lives while they wait for sometimes long-delayed asylum hearings. They try to get jobs, make friends, and send their children to school, but all the while live with the fear that what they have built will get ripped away.
It will take me a long time to synthesize my thoughts, but these families live in my mind. I keep seeing their faces: uncertainty but also, in fleeting glimmers, hope—hope that they might finally be safe.