Texas lockup epi­cen­ter of fam­ily de­ten­tion

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Will Weis­sert

DIL­LEY, TEXAS» A lit­tle boy with closely cropped hair was sit­ting qui­etly and grin­ning when he sud­denly sprang to his feet and tried to swipe a brownie off a nearby tray. He couldn’t quite reach it, though, in­stead send­ing crumbs and nap­kins in all di­rec­tions and elic­it­ing happy squeals from two chil­dren nearby.

It’s a scene that could play out in el­e­men­tary school cafe­te­rias na­tion­wide as young­sters pre­pare to head back to class. But in­side the Dil­ley im­mi­gra­tion lockup, it’s a glimpse of the epi­cen­ter of fam­ily im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion poli­cies that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sought to tighten.

Fed­eral au­thor­i­ties on Thurs­day al­lowed re­porters to tour the 50-acre com­pound that’s hold­ing 1,520 women and chil­dren ages 1 to 17 — the na­tion’s largest such fa­cil­ity — in a re­mote cor­ner of south Texas, about 70 miles south­west of San An­to­nio. Agency ground rules pre­vented re­porters from in­ter­view­ing im­mi­grants be­ing held at the fa­cil­ity.

Another lockup in equally ru­ral Karnes City, Texas, is hous­ing 630 fathers and their sons, while a smaller de­ten­tion cen­ter in Penn­syl­va­nia holds moth­ers and fathers and their chil­dren.

Bor­der ar­rest fig­ures re­leased Wed­nes­day un­der­score the strain that fam­i­lies have put on the de­ten­tion sys­tem, which has a max­i­mum ca­pac­ity of around 3,000. In July, fam­i­lies ac­counted for 9,258 of the Bor­der Pa­trol’s 31,303 ar­rests, or 29.5 per­cent. In June, they were 27.6 per­cent of to­tal ar­rests.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “zero tol­er­ance” pol­icy of crim­i­nally pros­e­cut­ing im­mi­grants cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally led to fam­i­lies be­ing sep­a­rated be­fore pub­lic out­cry prompted a pres­i­den­tial ex­ec­u­tive or­der halt­ing the prac­tice in June. About 10 per­cent of fam­i­lies at Dil­ley were re­united af­ter be­ing sep­a­rated, but aren’t show­ing signs of trauma that would set them apart from other fam­i­lies be­ing held, said Daniel Bi­ble, field of­fice di­rec­tor for U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment’s San An­to­nio sec­tor.

“What I think you’re see­ing out here is the typ­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion that these peo­ple have all day,” Bi­ble said. “We haven’t no­ticed that there’s been any change.”

Many fam­i­lies at Dil­ley are flee­ing gang or drug vi­o­lence in their home coun­tries, which are most fre­quently Gu­atemala, Mex­ico, El Sal­vador and Hon­duras. They are seek­ing U.S. asy­lum, a process that can take years, and ar­gue that their lives could be in dan­ger if they are de­ported.

The fa­cil­ity re­ceives about 110 new im­mi­grants daily, most ap­pre­hended in Texas’ Rio Grande Val­ley. Dil­ley ac­cepts only moth­ers with chil­dren and doesn’t take peo­ple with crim­i­nal records.

Women and girls ages 10 and older are given preg­nancy tests upon ar­rival — and ev­ery­one gets phys­i­cals, men­tal health and den­tal screen­ings and im­mu­niza­tions within two weeks. Posters fea­tur­ing a long-nosed Pinoc­chio pro­claim in Span­ish: “The No. 1 ru­mor you’ve heard about vac­ci­na­tions. It’s not true,” a ref­er­ence to some be­liefs that im­mu­niza­tions can be harm­ful to chil­dren.

Im­mi­grants typ­i­cally stay at Dil­ley about 15 days. A fed­eral court de­ci­sion pro­hibits the govern­ment from hold­ing fam­i­lies in de­ten­tion for longer than 20 days, though some stay longer by choice while ap­peal­ing if they fail ini­tial in­ter­views as part of their asy­lum cases. Michael Sheri­dan, an ICE con­tract of­fi­cer rep­re­sen­ta­tive who led the tour, said most peo­ple at Dil­ley pass the ini­tial screen­ings and are even­tu­ally re­leased to live with rel­a­tives al­ready in other parts of the U.S.

With an an­nual op­er­at­ing bud­get of $156 mil­lion, Dil­ley is a se­ries of low-slung com­pounds on what was once an en­camp­ment for oil-field work­ers. Moth­ers and their chil­dren are as­signed to dif­fer­ent “neigh­bor­hoods” named af­ter an­i­mals and typ­i­cally share trail­ers with bunk beds and com­mu­nal bath­rooms.

The cafe­te­ria of­fers three meals daily and has a per­ma­nent salad bar, rice and beans sta­tion, and small ovens that keep warm the flour and corn tor­tillas that are al­ways avail­able. The most pop­u­lar meal is chicken nuggets, Sheri­dan said. There are play­grounds, gyms, a salon trailer of­fer­ing free hair­cuts and a li­brary with thou­sands of books in Span­ish and English where de­tainees can check their email and the in­ter­net — but can’t ac­cess so­cial me­dia such as Face­book.

In class­room trail­ers, stu­dents are taught Texas cur­ricu­lum, though they don’t be­gin the day with the Pledge of Al­le­giance as in other schools statewide.

Im­mi­grant fam­i­lies largely move freely about the grounds, many push­ing iden­ti­cal gray strollers and wear­ing Dil­leyis­sued, col­or­ful but oth­er­wise non­de­script T-shirts, pants, shorts and base­ball caps rather than uni­forms.

“It’s a non­cor­rec­tional set­ting. It’s in­for­mal,” Sheri­dan said.

Still, ad­vo­cacy groups note con­cerns, in­clud­ing that Dil­ley doesn’t have a pe­di­a­tri­cian on staff round-the-clock. The fa­cil­ity has three doc­tors who are gen­er­ally present dur­ing busi­ness hours and other med­i­cal staff at­tend to pa­tients dur­ing off hours, though.

Katy Mur­dza, ad­vo­cacy di­rec­tor of the Dil­ley Pro Bono Project, which works with de­tained im­mi­grants, said chil­dren at the fa­cil­ity who need medicine have to line up, some­times for hours, at phar­macy trail­ers that dis­pense medicine through win­dows rem­i­nis­cent of ticket booths. She said the classes have trou­ble ac­com­mo­dat­ing chil­dren who speak lan­guages other than Span­ish, such as Mayan tongues com­mon in Gu­atemala.

“I think that all the fam­i­lies who come here are trau­ma­tized,” Mur­dza said. “A lot of peo­ple say they wouldn’t have wanted to leave their coun­tries but feel they have no choice.”

Pho­tos by Charles Reed, U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment

Im­mi­grants walk into a build­ing at the South Texas Fam­ily Res­i­den­tial Cen­ter in Dil­ley, Texas. The com­pound in­cludes a cafe­te­ria and li­brary.

An im­mi­grant re­ceives den­tal care at the South Texas Fam­ily Res­i­den­tial Cen­ter, which is about 70 miles south­west of San An­to­nio. The 50-acre com­pound is hous­ing 1,520 moth­ers and their chil­dren; about 10 per­cent are fam­i­lies that were tem­po­rar­ily sep­a­rated and then re­united.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.