Written by Atenas Burrola, Pro Bono Manager and Crystal Massey, National Pro Bono Coordinator for the Afghan Project at the American Immigration Council

The Biden administration is reportedly considering reopening family detention. This is horrific news—news that left us in tears. Between the two of us, we dedicated countless hours working and volunteering in what was then the nation’s largest family detention center in Dilley, Texas. During that time, we witnessed firsthand the horrors of family detention and are almost beyond belief that the administration is considering bringing it back.

The 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) in Dilley, known as “baby jail” or “Dilley” to advocates, opened in early 2015. Its use as a family detention center was ended, ironically, by the Biden administration in 2021. To us, that closure was an important acknowledgement of the inhumanity of family detention. It was a sign that the Biden administration understood that the purported purpose of family detention—deterrence—was cruel and didn’t work. It was a step forward.

The town of Dilley has a population of fewer than 3,500 people and was previously known for watermelons and cantaloupes. San Antonio—the nearest big city and home of the closest airport—is about an hour and a half away by car. There is no public transportation, and no bus line stops there. There are no immigration nonprofits in town.

STFRC was a collection of trailers with absurdly bright lighting at night, surrounded by opaque fencing, and placed next to a state penitentiary. It was run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) via a contract with the second largest private prison company in the United States, CoreCivic (then known as Corrections Corporation of America or CCA).

A group of nonprofits, including the Council, collaborated to run a volunteer-based project for the entirety of Dilley’s existence as a family detention center. We worked to ensure that there would be free legal services available to the women and their children who were imprisoned there. It is through this lens that we both experienced Dilley, from both the staff and volunteer perspective.

From our experience there, we firmly believe that family detention never should have existed and that neither Dilley nor any other immigration jail should be converted back to it.

Here are six experiences that explain why:

  1. A mother falling to the floor with an epileptic seizure as guards prohibit anyone from getting close to her while yelling at her in Spanish (a language she did not speak or understand). Meanwhile her child stands nearby shaking in fear and no one can touch the child to offer comfort because that is against the rules.
  2. A 14-month-old taking off his shoes and looking up confused at a red-faced prison guard screaming at him to put them back on.
  3. A 3-year-old with thick green mucus caked at the inside corners of his eyes, his mother gently wiping his nose. He barely moves except for the occasional dry cough that wracks his tiny body. He has had diarrhea for 3 days. He is not keeping down any liquids. For two days in a row his mother has stood outside in line with her son for more than six hours to see a doctor. Denied access to the doctor, she was finally able to speak to medical staff who told her, “Just give him more water.”
  4. A mother doesn’t know that non-consensual sexual relations with her husband is rape. When she tried to report her husband for beating her almost to death, police apparently told her, “Go back to your husband. This is a family matter.” She has already been ordered deported. She only consults an attorney after the deportation order because the guards did not tell her there are free lawyers on site.
  5. Core Civic guards refusing to drink the tap water fearing it was contaminated but forcing the women and children to do so.
  6. The facility threatens an attorney with banishment for accepting a hug from a mother who he helped win her case.

Family detention causes lasting harm. These centers damage the development of the children who are held there. They retraumatize the mothers. Secondary trauma impacts the volunteers and the staff that work there.

We can do better. Immigration specialists and community stakeholders have offered many alternatives to immigration detention. The administration has considered some of these options already. But now, instead of focusing on building an asylum system that is humane and offers protection to the most vulnerable amongst us, the administration is going back to the very same policies that President Biden previously and unequivocally rejected.

The thought that we may need to return our attention and efforts to family detention is heart wrenching. It invokes memories of the big heart shaped buttons we had that read “ASK ME HOW to VOLUNTEER at a BABY JAIL.” To this day we receive emails from volunteers who spent time in Dilley. They recount events that still haunt their dreams.

While we feel humbled from the experience of walking alongside women and children trying to navigate a broken asylum system in detention, we cannot go back to detaining families. As our colleague said, echoing the words of candidate Joe Biden in 2020, “This is pretty simple, and we can’t believe we have to say it. Don’t restart mass family detention.”

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