Dilley, a small Texas city eighty-three miles north of the Mexican border, greets visitors with a cheerful sign.
“Welcome to Dilley, Texas,” it reads. “A Slice of the Good Life.”
That good life extends only so far. Just west of town, nearly two thousand women and children are locked up inside the massive South Texas Family Residential Center. With a capacity of 2400, the brand-new Dilley is now the largest immigration prison in the United States. There are so many children at the camp that they sometimes outnumber the adults, the New York Times reports; their average age is nine years old.
Celina Gutierrez, a twenty-three-year-old from Honduras, was one of them. She was locked up in Dilley on January 27, just a month after it opened in response to the flood of immigrant asylum seekers arriving in the summer of 2014.
“I’m still fighting,” she told me by phone in August, speaking in Spanish. Siempre luchando. “I’ve been here six months and I’m getting to seven months.”
Celina was being held in the prison complex with her six-year-old daughter, Maria. The little girl is one of the main reasons Celina was here in the hot brush country of south Texas, instead of in her hometown of Choluteca in southern Honduras.
“The Mara Eighteen gang”—a prominent drug gang back home—“wanted me to sell drugs and collect ‘rents,’”—or extortion fees, Celina said. “I didn’t want to join them. They were threatening to kill me and my daughter.”
The U.S. Department of State agrees that Celina’s homeland is dangerous. “Honduras is a major transit country for cocaine,” the U.S. Department of State reports on its website. And Choluteca, straddling the Pan-American Highway, the major thoroughfare through Central America, is a center for the drug trade.
Honduras has had one of the highest murder rates in the world for the last five years, and in March, State warned Americans traveling there that “the level of crime and violence remains critically high.” Transnational drug gangs prey on the population, conducting “extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking.”
When one of those gangs threatened Celina and Maria, Celina grabbed her child and fled north. They traveled by bus and car some 1,590 miles all the way from Choluteca to the Texas border. The last part of their journey was through the perilous Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where in 2010 and 2012 some 265 migrants and other bus travelers were murdered by the Zetas drug cartel. In 2015, just weeks after mother and daughter passed through, battles between rival cartels erupted in the street.
Celina and Maria managed to get safely to the Mexican border town of Reynosa. Exhausted and traumatized, they didn’t try to slip into the United States undetected. Instead, Celina went with her little girl to the border agents at the Hidalgo Port of Entry, thinking the Americans would help them.
“I turned myself into the authorities,” Celina said. “I asked for asylum.”
What she got was indefinite confinement in a prison-like camp.
“A high fence and security cameras encircle the camp, preventing the ‘residents’ from escaping,” ACLU attorney Carl Takei writes of Dilley. “Visitors go through metal detectors and entry procedures indistinguishable from those in a regular prison.” Guards, known euphemistically as “residential supervisors,” do body counts day and night.
“Each morning at 5:30 a.m., guards wake the children up with shouting and lights…there are no toilets or showers inside the housing units—only communal restrooms accessible through hallways exposed to the elements.”
Takei likens the camp to the notorious internment centers that detained entire Japanese-American families—including some of his own relatives—during World War II.
“Dilley,” he concludes, “feels like an updated version of these places.”
Maria fared poorly in this modern-day internment camp. She and her mother had no privacy. They lived with five other women and five girls in what CCA calls a cottage, Celina calls a cabin, and critics call a barracks.
“Officers can come in any time of day,” Celina said. “There’s no door.”
Maria ate hardly any of the institutional food dispensed in the chow hall, and she subsisted primarily on toast and the occasional piece of fruit. She was reluctant to go to the prison school, where kids rotate in and out as their families get deported or released. Without steady friends in this unstable environment, Maria clung to her mother.
And there wasn’t much else to do. The treeless playground is hot as blazes in the Texas summer, and the mothers aren’t allowed to take the kids out in the cool of the evening. A curfew requires them to be in their barracks by 8 p.m.
When Maria got seriously ill, Celina said, the child got poor medical care.
“My daughter was sick with a fever for a whole week,” she said. “I would take her to the clinic and they just told her to drink water. Finally she fainted and started vomiting blood.” Then and only then did the Dilley officials take the little girl to the hospital, Celina said.
Maria got better, but she was mopey, a little kid in lock-up.
Why is the United States locking up small children and their mothers?
In 2009, President Obama had essentially ended the detention of immigrant families when he pulled kids and mothers out of the much-criticized T. Don Hutto, an earlier family detention center in Texas. Apart from keeping one small center in Pennsylvania, the 97- bed Berks County Residential Center, the U.S. for a short time got out of the family detention biz. In the years since, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had routinely released mothers arriving with children, while ordering them to report regularly to immigration authorities at their final destination in the U.S.
That more humane policy changed dramatically after the summer of 2014, when some 70,000 of desperate Central American mothers poured over the border with their children, most of them seeking asylum. Amidst the political crisis and anti-immigrant hysteria that ensued, the Department of Homeland Security began jailing mothers and children. The idea was that detention would deter more asylum seekers from coming.
Families were at first detained in Artesia, New Mexico, in an inadequate Border Patrol training facility. Plans were hastily made to construct two massive “family-friendly” detention centers in South Texas: Dilley and the 532-bed Karnes County Residential Center.
Both were contracted out to for-profit private prison companies, Karnes to The GEO Group, and Dilley to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Jailing kids has turned out to be profitable. CCA charges $296 a day for every mother and child locked up inside Dilley, more than twice what the company can get for a detainee at a typical CCA immigrant lock-up for adults. As detailed in The Daily Beast, CCA has gleefully reported that Dilley, its newest enterprise, had “generated $65.9 million in revenue during the second quarter of 2015.”
The Reading Eagle reports that even the small center in Pennsylvania, which had 87 women and children as of September 4, has earned millions for its owner, Berks County.
Complaints over conditions erupted immediately. Over 100 Democratic Congressional reps petitioned the administration to shut down all three family detention centers. Hunger strikes broke out at Karnes. Lawsuits were filed. Most recently, in August, five mothers who had been detained filed a legal action against the federal government saying they and their children had been subject to physical and psychological harm.
Social worker Olivia Lopez quit her job after six months at Karnes and turned whistleblower. She went to the press and testified in a Congressional forum, saying that Karnes was most certainly a prison, complete with clanging doors and stringent security. She accused Karnes of ordering staff not to report the mothers’ concerns and even of using a form of solitary confinement as discipline. Women who complained about conditions were put into isolation rooms with their children, she said. (Both ICE and The GEO Group denied Lopez’s allegations.)
“Family detention is not a place for these families and children,” Lopez told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. “I mean, they’re not criminals. They are fighting to save the lives of their children and themselves.”
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, a federal judge in California, agrees: she has ruled that children like Celina’s daughter Maria shouldn’t be detained at all. Twice this summer, in blistering prose, Gee ordered Homeland Security to release all children from its immigration detention centers. She called conditions at Dilley and at Karnes “deplorable.” Both lock-ups, she ruled, clearly violated the 1997 Flores v. Reno decision.
A settlement of a class-action suit, Flores banned the government from housing immigrant children in de facto prisons unlicensed for child care. Neither Dilley nor Karnes has child-care credentials and their primary business of these two corporations is running criminal prisons and adult immigration detention centers—not the care and treatment of traumatized six-year-olds.
Ever since the judge issued her first ruling on July 24, the two sides have engaged in a kind of legal ping-pong. Homeland Security asked her to reconsider on Aug. 6, saying improvements had been made and arguing that release of the asylum seekers would only encourage more to come. On Aug. 21, Gee, herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants, scolded the DHS for once again raising the deterrence argument that she had already rejected. She ordered that the children be set free by October 23. DHS could still appeal that ruling.
In response to Gee’s rulings—and in hopes of getting her to go easier on them—ICE began cycling women and their kids out more quickly.
But Celina and Maria languished. Celina had hoped to be released to her father’s home in New York long before now, so she could await a decision on her asylum appeal outside Dilley’s walls.
Yet her complicated legal case kept her and her child detained longer than many of the other families. Celina had come to the border before, in 2013, and asked for asylum; she was deported without the hearing she was entitled to, according to Mohammad Abdollahi, with RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a nonprofit that’s helping her.
This time around, at Dilley, she got the opportunity to tell her harrowing story to an asylum officer. Not surprisingly, the officer found that she had a “reasonable fear of persecution” if she were to return to Honduras. That finding gave her the right to present her case at a hearing with a judge, but that did not go well.
Given the death threats from a drug gang, “Celina has a really solid case,” Abdollahi said. But “at the trial they need witnesses, records. They need to get people to call in via phone. It’s really difficult” for someone in detention to rustle up those papers and witnesses. Without those documents and testimonies, she lost her case.
Attorney Elanie J. Cintron stepped in to represent Celina pro bono in an appeal. And with Judge Gee’s finding that it’s illegal to hold kids like Maria in a facility unlicensed for child care, Abdollahi predicted that “Celina’s situation should change very soon.”
Celina hoped so.
“I’m really tired,” she said in August. “My hope is that I wake up and this is just a nightmare.”
Last Friday, Sept. 4, the Dilley part of her nightmare ended. Celina and four other Dilley detainees who’d been held for a long time—one of them for fourteen months—were released with their children. Celina and Maria had been locked up behind Dilley’s high walls for 220 days, more than seven months.
Celina was slapped with an ankle bracelet, attorney Citron said, and she’ll have to report to ICE regularly as she awaits the outcome of her appeal.
For now, Citron said, “She is safe and sound with her father and daughter in New York.”
Left behind that day were 2427 moms and women still imprisoned in Dilley, Karnes, and Berks.
About the Author
Margaret Regan is the author of Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire and the award-winning book The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, a 2010 Southwest Book of the Year and a Common Read for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. An editor and writer at the Tucson Weekly, Regan has won many regional and national prizes for her immigration reporting, including the 2013 Al Filipov Peace and Justice Award. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.