Baby Jail, Part 1: Family Detention

By GuestBlogger (Anon)
This post is the first of a 3-part series documenting the experience of an immigrant rights attorney volunteering at the Family Detention Center in Dilley, TX. Because of the nature of her work, she has requested to remain anonymous.

Recently, I went to what the government, ironically, calls the South Texas Family Residential Center. It’s more commonly known as the “Family Detention Center in Dilley, TX,” and/or, as “Baby Jail.” It is one of the places where over a thousand mothers and children, fleeing lives we can only imagine, are sent after arriving at our borders seeking refuge. Instead of refuge, they are sent to “hieleras” (ice boxes), “perreras,” (dog kennels), and finally, STFRC (baby jail).

Most of these mothers and children, in addition to fleeing violence, rape, domestic violence, threats upon their lives, extortions, and God knows what else, face an arduous journey across at least one country, sometimes as many as three, to get here. They do not come here because it is a walk in the park. They come here because they have no other choice.

Going in, I thought I knew what I could expect — I had spoken to people who’d been to Dilley or to the first iteration of this round of family detention in Artesia, NM. I read the news, learning about the deplorable practices ICE and private for-profit prison companies engaged in detaining these women. I read and believed that it was like prison. I saw the articles and comparisons to Japanese interment camps. But, I could not believe that our country had not learned its lesson, and would again be engaging in something like that.

I was wrong.

Driving up before 7am to the “Residential Center,” the first thing you notice is that it’s literally down the road from a local jail. But the baby jail, not the real jail, is the one that has super bright, fluorescent lights flooding its 50+ acres. Yes, that’s right, the detention center housing refugee women and children is better lit than the actual jail.

The next thing you notice is that the entrance to the center is unmarked (unlike the real jail). If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll miss it. Once you park, all you see are high chain link fences, the roofs of trailers, and one trailer where we have been told we will go through security. We’ve been warned: no phones, no cameras, no headphones, only one computer/tablet per person, etc, etc.

Going through security is, as several people described it, worse than TSA. Which would make sense if you were trying to visit a jail. . . but you’re not. Remember? This is a “family residential center.”

As the week goes on, various things are prohibited to us. We can’t bring in deodorant. A toothbrush. A hairbrush. Some etch-a-sketches. Some coloring books. Some crayons. God forbid we take something in for the kids to play with.

Once you’re past security, you exchange ID for a numbered badge, wait for them to buzz the door open, and then cross into the visitation trailer. Admittedly, the inside of that trailer is, larger than I had expected. A big room in the middle, with tables and chairs for people to meet, and individual meeting rooms around the entire side of the trailer. There is also a playroom at the far end with a TV, some coloring books, and a couple of games.

We notice that there is a separate, smaller, playroom, and several of the individual rooms that are labeled “cohort.” These, we find out, are for women who have recently been transferred from Karnes, and thus “might have chicken pox” and have to be isolated from the rest of the population. They must be escorted anywhere. They cannot stop out of their “cohort” rooms into the general visitation space. Mysteriously, there always seems to be a cohort population—I guess there’s always chicken pox at Karnes.

Once you start meeting with clients—and their children—the first thing that you notice is that all the children are sick. Every. Single. One. I had 41 client meetings during the course of the week, and I did not meet a single child who did not have a cough or a sniffle. One particular 3-year-old was so adept at blowing her nose, it almost seemed like her favorite thing to do—not “a lo estupido,” as we say in Spanish, however, there was always snot that needed to be blown out.

All the children are sick, but the most common treatment you hear about doctors giving is “drink more water” — water which, by the way, you are told you probably shouldn’t drink, because of nearby fracking.

The other thing you notice once you start meeting with clients—mothers—is that they are, to a T, terrified of returning to their home countries. Some faced horrific domestic violence situations. Some had teenage boys who were being forced to either join a gang or die. Some had something a gang member wanted, and was willing to kill for. Some were being threatened for where they lived, or where they walked by, or simply because a gang member wanted her to be his. Rarely was the threat only to the mother, but instead, almost always to her children. After all, what mother wouldn’t be motivated to give in when the alternative is watching her 8-year old daughter be raped?

Soon, you’ve got a feel for the place—the visitation trailer, at least. We are not allowed to go anywhere except the visitation trailer, the asylum office, and the court—the second two which are right next to the visitation trailer. But in the visitation trailer, anyway, you begin to see how things are. You see that the CCA (the private for-profit company that runs the center) guards are human beings too, and treat the children and mothers, and the volunteers, kindly. When a child has lost his or her mother within the trailer, one of the guards will gently grab him by the hand, and wander around the entire trailer until he finds her. There is a vending machine in the trailer and, though they are not supposed to, you will often see a guard slipping some of the kids a bag of chips or candy.

The fact that the guards are human, however, does not take away the inhumanity of jailing these women and children away. They have committed no greater crime than fleeing for their lives, and yet they are treated like criminals. There are children who in their home countries knew only insecurity and fear, and who now, upon arriving in the United States, know only the inside of a jail. Children who, despite being jailed, would rather die than return to the place they fled. And mothers who, if only they could, would do anything to get their children out of that jail. Almost every mother I spoke to told me, “If I can’t get out, fine. But please, PLEASE, my baby cannot stand another week in here.”

But our immigration system, our Department of Justice, our presidential administration, we do not seem particularly inclined to get these women and children out of there. DOJ claims this is a “temporary” facility, where women and children spend only two weeks—yet practically every women I spoke to had been there for over two weeks. Several had been there since May or June. And at least one has been detained for over a year. If we, as volunteers, do not push their cases, ICE seems to do nothing but twiddle their thumbs—until we point out that someone who should have been out over a week ago is still there.

I spoke to one mother with a severely autistic child who had been in for over a week. What, pray tell me, is an autistic six year old doing locked up!?! We brought her case to the attention of ICE and two days later they were out. But there are over 1,000 women detained at Dilley.

The permanent staff of the CARA Pro Bono Project, which manages the volunteers, are 3—and they are amazing. In any given week, there are anywhere from 5-20 volunteers. It is physically and literally impossible for 3, or 5, or 20, or even 50 people to serve an ever rotating population of over 1,000 women and children.

How many women and children are not getting served? How many women have been in there for over a month who do not know not they can be helped? And, more importantly, WHY ARE WE PUTTING THEM THERE?!?

[Read Part 2]


Want to DO something? What you can do to help one family fighting detention.

One response to “Baby Jail, Part 1: Family Detention

  1. Thanks for writing this post, Anon, to tell how bad the situation is. This is heartbreaking.


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