Fleeing violence, finding detention: One family's year in US lock-up

Far from the European refugee crisis, Central Americans with asylum claims detained in for-profit facilities

Ana and her young daughter, immigrants from El Salvador, were released in September after 14 months in U.S. detention. Ana is required to wear an electronic ankle monitor and report regularly to immigration authorities. The company that manufactures these devices is owned by GEO Group, one of the largest private prison corporations in the U.S.
Christopher Shay / Al Jazeera America

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HUNTINGTON STATION, N.Y. — Katherine started eighth grade behind schedule, on Oct. 5, partway into the fall semester and a grade level behind. She felt nervous, not so much because of the language barrier or the newness of life in small-town America, but because so much time had passed since she was last in school. The previous year and a half had been an unspeakable blank.

In July 2014, she and her mother, Ana, had left El Salvador to escape a gang they say was extorting their family and threatening Ana with violence. (For legal reasons, only first names are used in this story.) It was their second such journey; the first had ended in deportation from the U.S. This time, it took three weeks to cross into Texas, where they surrendered to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and declared themselves refugees. They’d hoped to petition for asylum and reunite with Raúl, Ana’s common-law husband and Katherine’s father, who was living on Long Island, New York. But they were soon put on a plane to New Mexico, entering the first of three federal detention centers — really, prisons, Ana said — for mothers and kids seeking asylum.

Their longest stay was in the South Texas Family Residential Center, a new detention facility run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in the oil-camp town of Dilley. Katherine, a tall, serious girl with dark brown hair, recalls a blurry nine months of inactivity. She remembers how bored she was and how little appetite she had; how they only had an hour per day to use the Internet or read in the library. Most of the time was spent sitting in their communal bedroom, crowded with bunk beds. There was nothing resembling school. “Sometimes, I would go outside with my friends,” she said, reticent about her experience. “Outside” was the fenced-in, 50-acre expanse in which the buildings and trailers making up the detention center were arranged.

With 2,400 beds for mothers and children, Dilley is the largest civil detention center in the country and, in its desert landscape and low-lying architecture, reminiscent of the Japanese internment camps of World War II. The Obama administration says family detention is necessary to deal with last year’s surge of some 68,541 unaccompanied minors and an additional 68,445 children traveling with a parent or legal guardian, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. But the facility was designed and built in haste, through a no-bid contract with a private prison company, the $1.65 billion Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA.

Ana and her daughter were among Dilley’s first detainees and were held there longer than anyone else, according to immigration advocates on-site. They were finally released without explanation in early September, after 14 months in ICE custody. Their asylum claims had been denied, and Ana is required to wear an ankle monitor and attend regular check-ins with law enforcement. Despite the real threat of deportation, they’ve felt relieved to join Raúl in New York and get Katherine back in school. Ana said she worries, though, that her daughter was scarred by their confinement: “She doesn’t seem like a normal girl who can enjoy things.”

Immigration attorneys, civil rights groups, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the U.N. Human Rights Commission have all demanded an end to family detention — as have 136 Democrats in the House of Representatives.

When President Obama took office, he vowed to curtail George W. Bush’s policy of detaining migrant children. In August 2009, following extensive litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, removed all minors from the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a facility in Taylor, Texas, run by the same private prison corporation — CCA — that now operates Dilley. (CCA declined to comment for this story). But in response to the 2014 increase in child refugees, Obama reversed course, adopting a “no-release policy” to deter further migration across the U.S. border. In 2013, ICE had just 95 beds in family detention units; that figure has now risen to some 3,000, spread across three secure facilities: the center in Dilley, the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, and the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. (The Artesia, New Mexico, facility, where Ana and Katherine spent their first five months in the U.S., was closed at the end of last year.)

The legality of these facilities is now in question. In July, U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee of the Central District of California ruled [PDF] that ICE’s policy of detaining children for weeks and months, alone and with their mothers, violates a 1997 settlement in Flores v. Johnson, a class action lawsuit brought by unaccompanied minors fleeing earlier violence in Central America. That settlement holds that ICE must release immigrant children “without unnecessary delay” to a legal guardian or adult custodian and make “continuous efforts on its part toward family reunification.” By Oct. 22, ICE must prove that it has devised standards and procedures to ensure that children are only held for short periods and in “facilities that are safe and sanitary, consistent with concern for the particular vulnerability of minors,” never in “unlicensed or secure facilities” except in extraordinary circumstances. “Our position is, [ICE] could comply with the law and with Flores by releasing these mothers and kids in a week at most,” said Peter Schey, executive director at the California-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and attorney for the plaintiff class in Flores.

Before Katherine and Ana were finally released from Dilley in September, they received cards from children left behind.
Christopher Shay / Al Jazeera America

Dilley, though more spacious and well appointed than Karnes and Artesia, still felt like a jail, Ana said. “You always have to follow the rules. You’re surveilled.” She listed her grievances: The children had no access to education, mothers were not informed about their legal rights, the wait for medical care was hourslong, multiple families slept in tightly arranged bunk beds, scorpions and snakes roamed the premises, and the food was often inedible. Nina Pruneda, a spokeswoman for ICE’s San Antonio field office, stated in an email that the agency “provides a safe and humane environment” and that “school-age children receive instruction in accordance with state regulation.”

Immigration attorneys, civil rights groups, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the U.N. Human Rights Commission have all demanded an end to family detention — as have 136 Democrats in the House of Representatives [PDF]. Yet the budget for fiscal year 2015 provides continued funding for these facilities, part of the $3.4 billion allocated to “detention, enforcement, and removal operations, including transportation of unaccompanied minor aliens.” 

Numerous complaints and lawsuits have been filed by former detainees at Karnes, where mothers staged a hunger strike in April and have alleged sexual and psychological abuse by staff. Advocates argue that, in place of a system run by private prison companies — at a cost of $300 per detainee per day at Dilley — migrants who wish to apply for asylum should be advised of their rights and interviewed at the border, under the auspices of international monitors, then released and provided legal counsel to pursue their claims.

What currently happens at the border is not well known or consistent. Ana and Katherine, who were smuggled north by car and bus, surrendered to border agents and were taken to a processing center nicknamed the “icebox” for its extreme air-conditioning, a particular hardship for migrants who’ve crossed by swimming the Rio Grande. Law enforcement officers provided Ana and Katherine with bottled water and sandwiches, the two women said, and asked questions in Spanish: where they’d come from, if they were bringing IDs or birth certificates, where they wanted to go. According to attorney Brian Hoffman, who coordinates the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project at Dilley, it’s unclear why some people are released to their families versus sent to a detention center versus deported right away.

'ICE was using me as an example. If you lose and appeal, ICE says, "No, you [should] give up," '


Immigrant from El Salvador held in U.S. detention

To Ana, the processes governing Dilley, Karnes and Artesia were just as opaque. Like 80 percent of family detainees [PDF], she and Katherine passed their “credible-fear interview,” the first step in proving they should be deemed refugees. Yet their case stood still. Why did some get out on bond while others never got that opportunity? Why were some women and kids detained so much longer than others? “[The ICE officers] basically just scare you. They don’t give you enough information. They don’t tell you what’s going to happen to you,” Ana said.

A few weeks after they arrived at Dilley, Ana and Katherine had a brief hope of “early” release. In January, ICE notified Ana’s attorney that Katherine would be let go. Mérida, Katherine’s paternal grandmother in New York, flew out that night, spending hundreds of dollars on airfare: round-trip for her and one-way for her granddaughter. The next morning, Mérida arrived at Dilley and was told that Ana, too, would be discharged. Then, for hours, Mérida heard nothing and grew frantic. Around 5 p.m., she recalled, they were informed that neither Ana nor Katherine would be released. The family was permitted an hour’s visitation at which they held each other and wept, the two women said. Ana had a panic attack; Mérida flew back alone.

Ana, center, with her daughter, Katherine, and common-law husband, Raúl, in front of their home in Huntington Station, New York.
Christopher Shay / Al Jazeera America

The days both accumulated and disappeared. Nine months into her detention, Ana appeared in the trailer that served as Dilley’s courtroom before an immigration judge presiding by video from Denver. A lawyer in New York represented her by phone.

Ana and Katherine have a tangled history with ICE: They were deported in 2007, when they first tried to reunite with Raúl. In the Dilley proceeding, he testified by phone that he’d emigrated alone in 2006, fearing retribution by gang members he’d identified for the police. Ana said she and her daughter had been forced to move from place to place in El Salvador and that a member of the same gang stalked and threatened her beginning in 2013. “I was living in fear,” Ana said. “My country is very small. There’s nowhere to hide and a lot of violence. … I wasn’t going to risk my daughter’s life or mine.” Katherine was not called to testify, nor did the lawyer submit paperwork on her behalf, Mérida said, despite being paid to represent mother and daughter.

On April 7, the immigration judge denied their petitions for asylum, ruling that their fear of being persecuted in El Salvador was insufficiently specific, the threats to their safety too weak. They were now subject to deportation. Ana, through a new lawyer, unsuccessfully appealed in June.

The federal government, meanwhile, continued to hold mother and daughter — a lengthy detention Ana attributed both to her previous deportation and her self-advocacy. “ICE was using me as an example. If you lose and appeal, ICE says, ‘No, you [should] give up,’ ” she said. She also maintained that Dilley staff never informed her of her right to a bond hearing. And when it finally came time for her and Katherine to be released, Ana said, she was fitted without explanation for an electronic ankle shackle — a black band with a rechargeable battery: “I couldn’t do anything, because I just wanted to get out.”

A recent complaint submitted to DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties backs up Ana’s claims. Four legal and advocacy groups have accused ICE staff at Dilley of “substantially misinforming” detainees about their right to be released on bond and forcing them to wear ankle shackles as a matter of course, without assessing individual flight risk; preventing detainees from meeting with their attorneys or seeking judicial review; and intimidating those who try to exercise their rights. According to ICE spokeswoman Pruneda, however, the agency provides detainees “an open environment, which includes … access to legal counsel,” and “makes custody and bond determinations on a case-by-case basis.” She added that ICE examines such factors as “criminal history, humanitarian concerns and community ties” to decide which detainees can be released through a program known as Alternatives to Detention, or ADT, “which might include in-person reporting, self-reporting by phone or electronic monitoring.”

Since Gee’s decision in the Flores case, ICE has released more and more mothers and children on the condition that they wear an ankle monitor, each at a taxpayer expense of $1,740. Yet Ana’s broke after just three weeks, she said. She charged the battery fully, again and again, she said, but it continued to beep loudly. She was embarrassed to go out in public and had to leave midway through an event at Katherine’s school on account of the noise. The company that made the device, BI Inc., was recently acquired by the GEO Group, the private prison company that operates Karnes.

Ana intends to submit a second appeal, her final chance to fight the denial of her asylum application. Her lawyer is expected to prepare a new filing on Katherine’s behalf. “There’s a lot of people who come trying to have a better life,” Ana said, “but other people — we’re looking for a place to live, to be safe.”

Caracol Interpreters Cooperative provided interpretation and translation services for this article.

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