Mass detention of migrant women and children continues to expand

United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement made plans official last week for the nation’s fourth family detention center, to be built in Dilley, about 72 miles southwest of San Antonio. The facility will ultimately imprison 2,400 migrant women and children while they await immigration court proceedings. The inmates will be held pending a decision in their case, even if they’ve demonstrated substantial fear or experiences of violence at home.

Scheduled to open in December, the Dilley facility will be the country’s largest family detention center, and the second operating in Texas. It’s just the latest example of the federal government using women and children to send a message to other potential migrants.

Family detention centers “will help ensure more timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States,” ICE wrote in its press release announcing the Dilley center.

The Dilley facility will be owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, the same public-private prison company that operated the T. Don Hutto Residential Center north of Austin. After the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Texas Law School’s Immigration Law Clinic uncovered cases of abuse and neglect, the government stopped detaining families at Hutto in 2009.

“The [Obama] administration has learned no lessons from what was one of the most shameful parts of the Bush administration’s detention legacy, and the fact that they’ve returned to that policy speaks volumes on where their priorities lie,” Bob Libal, director of Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, said. “I think that this is a giant step backwards, in terms of codifying a practice of locking up asylum-seeking families at for-profit prisons. It’s shameful.”

The government also uses family detention centers in Artesia, New Mexico, in Pennsylvania, and in Karnes County, about 60 miles south of San Antonio. The Karnes County Residential Center was originally opened in 2012 as an adult-male civil detention center. In response to this summer’s humanitarian crisis, when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and families fled violence in their home countries, the federal government converted Karnes to a family detention center.

Many of the women and children detained at these facilities are fleeing countries that have extremely high rates of gender-based violence and assaults. According to a report by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are within the top 10 most violent countries for women.

After touring the 532-bed Karnes facility in mid-September with dozens of other non-governmental organizations, Anne Chandler, Tahirih Justice Center’s Houston director, said she is concerned that detaining women and children who have experienced such trauma will ultimately hinder their ability to heal from the effects of domestic and sexual assault, and prevent them from getting appropriate legal counsel. Before this summer’s family detention policy was expanded, Chandler said women and children who passed credible-fear interviews with the federal government were often able to remain in non-detention settings while their cases worked their way through immigration court. But not anymore.

“It’s very clear that the administration is taking a very different approach, where regardless of whether women and children pass a credible-fear interview, it’s believed that it’s best that they remain in detention settings to relive and articulate in front of a judge not only what has happened to them, but why all their efforts to escape violence failed,” she said.

Jonathan Ryan, lawyer and executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), who has been representing women and children detained at Karnes pro bono since this summer, called the expansion of family detention and the government’s overall approach “hostile” and unnecessarily punitive.

“This argument does not pertain to the individual cases of these women, but rather trying to make of them some kind of example,” Ryan said. “They’re trying to telecast a more hardened, anti-immigration, and really anti-refugee, immigration policy.”


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.