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Families in detention

The United States uses the detention of families and unaccompanied minors as a method of deterring immigration. This must stop.

President Barack Obama heckled while speaking on immigration in Chicago in 2014. Jacek Boczarski/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

A recent report from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Women’s Refugee Commission tells the story of twenty-eight year old Rosa, who fled the gang violence in Honduras with her seven-year-old daughter Ana. They were arrested in New Mexico and put into a family detention centre there for three months. Around this same time, mothers held with their children at another family detention centre in Texas went on a five-day hunger strike the week before Easter 2015. The stories of these women and their children are among the many stories that have resulted from the United States’ renewed practice of detaining immigrant families.

The number of individuals detained in the United States for immigration reasons has increased dramatically over the past few decades, and especially under the Obama administration. This situation stems from the intensified border control efforts and immigration policies whose aim has ostensibly been to reduce mobility along the southern border of the United States. The policies have utterly failed to do so and have, rather, increased the vulnerability of those who cross. Amongst the numerous situations of detention that highlight the inhumanity of the current system is the issue of family detention.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) utilises a network of over 300 detention centres nationwide, many of them owned and operated by private corporations. In December of 2014 the largest family detention centre for immigrants opened in Dilley, Texas. At the facility’s inauguration, Jeh Johnson, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary, said ominously that with the added detention capability, “It’ll now be more likely that you’ll be detained and sent back.” The centre is a former camp for oilfield workers located 100 miles north of the US–Mexico border, between Laredo and San Antonio. It is designed to hold about 2400 detainees, most of whom will be women and children. The 50-acre site will be managed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest for-profit prison corporation in the United States. CCA describes its mission in Dilley as being “to provide an open, safe environment with residential housing as well as educational opportunities for women and children who are awaiting their due process.” Others have described the site as “standing on a dirt road lined with cabins in a barren compound enclosed by fencing.”

The event(s) precipitating the recent uptick in what has been referred to as “Obama’s family deportation mill” was the arrival of the ‘border kids’ during the summer of 2014. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras crossed the Mexican border into the United States. While these unaccompanied minors received most of the media attention, there was also a significant increase in the numbers of women and children crossing for the same reasons, namely violence in their home countries. The US government apprehended 68,334 family members at the US’s southwest border between October 2013 and September 2014. This represents a 361 percent increase from the previous year, according to the report mentioned in the first paragraph.

Prior to the summer of 2014, ICE maintained only one family detention centre: the 96-bed Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, which opened in 2001. From 2006-2009 CAA, under contract with ICE,  managed a family detention centre in in Taylor, Texas, however it was shut down after scathing publicity about conditions at the centre led to a human rights investigation and a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. Two other centres, one in Artesia, New Mexico and one in Karnes County, Texas were opened temporarily to hold families. Prior to opening the new centre in Dilley, Texas family detention, which was a very controversial aspect of the immigrant detention system, had been on the decline. 

Etienne Balibar has written of a “topography of cruelty” in which asylum and migration are central aspects. Borders, key features of this topography, today work as instruments of security control, segregation and “unequal access to the means of existence”. Surely, the detention of families, many with very young children, constitutes an extreme form of cruelty? Confining children in compounds behind razor wire is inherently inhumane. The average age of the children held at the Artesia, New Mexico detention centre was six years old. Mental health professional and immigration lawyers speak of the damage that prolonged detention does to mothers and their children, most of whom have already experienced devastating forms of violence. Surely the United States can do better.

About the author

Roxanne Lynn Doty is Associate Professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. Her most recent book, The Law Into Their Own Hands: Immigration and the Politics of Exceptionalism was awarded the Silver Book Award in 2010 by the Association of Borderland Studies. She is also the author of Anti-Immigrantism is Western Democracies-Statecraft, Desire, and the Politics of Exclusion _and Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations.


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