SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — Two years ago, Yanira López Lucas fled Guatemala with her daughter and teenage son after he refused to join a gang and their lives were threatened. When they came to the United States seeking asylum, they found themselves held at a former prison in South Texas that Geo Group had turned into a thousand-bed “family residential center.”
“I insist on saying we came to this county asking for help,” López says. “It’s not fair to make the women feel like they are criminals and the children feel guilty.”
Released after her claim was evaluated and considered “credible,” she was given a court date set for 2019. In the meantime, she helps at a shelter in San Antonio for families newly released from detention, where she makes sure to offer them a home-cooked meal of rice and beans.
“We prepare food for all the women that are coming in because, on the way here, a person doesn’t eat the way that a person really should be eating,” López says. “On top of that, in detention centers, the food is a total disaster. I went through that same thing and I know.”
López’s experience echoes that of thousands of asylum-seeking families from Central America subjected to the Obama administration’s “deterrence by detention” policy — put in place in 2014 in an effort to stop others from following them to the United States.
“I think everyone — advocates, the administration — thought this was a temporary thing, and we would nip this in the bud,” says Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention services at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. “Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to turn into some kind of protracted thing that’s here to stay, similar to adult detention. It looks like there is now this new space carved in the detention world for moms and kids.”
In fact, so many women and children continued to flee violence in Central America in the final months of 2016 that agents hastily erected large tents to hold them right next to busy ports of entry near the border towns of El Paso and McAllen.
“It’s like a tent city, and inside they have chain-link fence cages,” recalls Carlos García, an immigration lawyer who toured one of the facilities. “They call them temporary facilities, but they’re detention facilities nonetheless, where babies and children and parents are sleeping, are being jailed, while the government figures out what they’re going to do with them.”
Customs and Border Patrol has 72 hours to interview the so-called “family units,” collect their biometric data and send them to one of two detention centers about two hours away: the Geo Group prison in Karnes County, where López was held, or a 2,000-bed facility run by Core Civic in the small town of Dilley, next to a state prison and not far from a former internment camp for Japanese Americans.
A visit to the two family detention centers “triggered distressing associations of my own experience as a child” for psychotherapist Satsuki Ina, who was born in a Japanese-American prison camp during World War II and believes locking children up is inherently traumatic.
“We too lived in a constant state of fear and anxiety, never knowing what our fate would be,” she told the American Civil Liberties Union. “We too were forced to share our living space with strangers, line up for meals, share public latrines, respond to roll call and adjust to ever-changing rules and regulations with the eyes of the guards constantly trained on us.”
In 2016, a Department of Homeland Security Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers urged the Obama administration to discontinue the general use of family detention. Among the problems it cited were allegations of medical neglect.
“On our third day in Dilley, she started having fevers and coughing,” remembers a young Honduran mother named Erica, who was detained with her then 14-month-old daughter and 3-year-old son. “When I took her to the medic, the hospital there, they told me there was nothing wrong with her.”
She was given acetaminophen and Vicks VapoRub, but the toddler continued to suffer. Erica became so concerned that she says, “I wanted to sign my deportation, because I wanted to get out of there. And I told the other moms there, but they told me to not do that.”
After multiple visits to the nurse, Erica was released to the shelter in San Antonio where she met López, and the staff became so alarmed at the child’s condition that within hours of her arrival they took her to the emergency room. She was diagnosed with pneumonia and an infection in her right lung, and had to be hospitalized for a week.
Now advocates worry Erica’s experience could become more common under Donald Trump, whose vow to “make America great again” includes a crackdown on immigrants and surrounding himself with policymakers who oppose oversight and regulation of private industry, including private prisons.
“This is not an immigration issue, it is a humanitarian crisis,” says Garcia. “We’re treating very poorly these children who are fleeing and asking for help. That is not who we should be as Americans.”
Meanwhile, Erica says she hopes Trump realizes “there are some who come here because they want to. But for a lot of us, it is not our dream to come, it is sad circumstances that lead us here to a country far from home.”