LIRS Staff Member Shares Her Heartbreaking Trip to Dilley Family Detention Center

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The Dilley detention center under construction.
The Dilley detention center under construction.

Joanne Kelsey, LIRS Assistant Director for Advocacy, visited the freshly opened Dilley family detention center last week. What she saw and learned underscores how detention is no place for children.

Joanne writes:

On the eve of the Martin Luther King weekend, I visited the “South Texas Family Residential Facility” in Dilley, Texas. Although the word “detention” is missing from the name, there is no hiding the purpose of this massive new facility. The Dilley facility is the largest immigration detention facility ever built, designed to hold 2,400 children and mothers entering the United States. For me, the Dilley facility encapsulates why the immigrant rights movement is the most important civil rights movement of our time.

One scene from the tour sticks with me. A little girl, no older than two, was walking along holding onto one of the male staff members. She was delightful and he was delighted, both of them smiling as she advanced, as toddlers do, more sideways steps than forward ones. He was dressed in a brown uniform and she sported a puffy, pink coat that she had received upon arrival at the facility. Her coat was the only colorful object on the whole horizon.

In that moment, knowing that many of these families had been detained already for six months and watching a uniformed stranger, not a grandparent or loved one, witness some of this child’s first steps, the true costs of this unnecessary detention immobilized me.

Why hold children and their mothers in detention? The U.S. government has stated that detaining this vulnerable group will deter other mothers and children from making the same dangerous journey from Central America and towards the relative safety in America that these detainees made earlier.

The government is wrong.  The threats these families are fleeing are real and have not diminished.

Already 80% of the women held at Dilley have expressed a fear of returning home, mostly because of gang-related or domestic violence. Many of these women have demonstrated that their fear is credible and that they are eligible to seek asylum here in the United States.  Despite a government policy that favors release for asylum-seekers who have passed the credible fear interview, like these mothers, the government routinely opposes release requests from detainees at Dilley and other family detention facilities.

At full capacity, 2,400 children and mothers will be detained in Dilley at a cost of just under $750,000 per day. Is this enormous financial cost necessary to ensure these families will appear for their immigration proceedings? Certainly not. There are also drastic costs to the well-being of mothers and children held in detention.

Most of the women we talked to had a family member in the United States who knew they were here and were waiting to take them in. Allowing these women and children to live with these family members while awaiting their immigration court hearings would cost the government nothing. For those without family members, effective alternatives to detention based on community support are available at a fraction of the cost and with the benefit of locations accessible to the legal community.

I have visited many immigration detention facilities over the years. What I have learned is that immigration detention comes in all shapes, sizes, and locations. I have met with detainees forced into solitary confinement for weeks “for their own safety” and others who have not been outside for four years because an open window 20 feet above their heads is considered to meet the requirements for “outdoor recreation space.”

Dilley is none of those things, but it is detention and it is an absolutely inappropriate response to these already traumatized families. Currently, it is a maze of temporary gray trailers, mud-brown “cottages” where the families live, and a dining facility under a large temporary tent set an hour and half from San Antonio, Texas on hundreds of acres of flat, brown Texas mud.

If, as Dr. King is believed to have said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” I am wondering when it will start to bend towards these children and mothers from Central America.

Following my visit, I am more committed than ever to ensuring the mothers and children detained in Texas are not forgotten and one day soon are welcomed into our country with dignity, justice, and compassion.

To learn more about why family immigration detention is contrary to our values as Americans, read the recent report by LIRS and Women’s Refugee CommissionLocking Up Family Values, Again. 

Photo credit: Joanne Kelsey

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