Refuge Denied: The Plight of Central-American Women and Children in U.S. Detention Centers

By Laura Plata

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n November 10, 2016, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) banned the use of crayons at the Karnes Family Detention Center, a privately-owned immigrant detention facility in San Antonio, TX. Children at the Center had been coloring on the walls, which ICE described as “destruction of property” that “caused damage to the contractor.” That contractor, the GEO Group, has earned over $57 million in profits from that facility alone.

Amy Fischer, Policy Director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, was outraged. “The reason we’re so fired up about it,” she said, “is because it is an environment in which they are detained, in which they are already so traumatized. Coloring is a way for them to use their imagination and be distracted from the chaos and destruction around them – taking that opportunity away from them is just cruel.”       

From twelve months ago up until August, 2016, 66,000 family units (consisting mostly of women and children) have been apprehended at the border.In comparison, 61,000 family units were detained two years ago during this same period. (1) Statistics from the Department of Homeland Security state that there have been an additional 51,000 unaccompanied refugee children fleeing Central America alone. (2)

The majority of individuals are fleeing high levels of gang and drug violence as well as hunger and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. (3) Almost a quarter of children come from Honduras. (4) According to UN data, four of the five highest murder rates in the world are in Central American nations. The rise in individuals crossing the border isn’t an immigration crisis, it’s a refugee crisis.

Gangs arrived en masse to places like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador when 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha gang members were deported from Los Angeles to Central America in the 1990s. (4) The power of such gangs is so pervasive that they been able to displace weak, corrupt governments. (4) With high demand from a lucrative U.S market at stake, narco groups and gangs fight for control of these routes.

In schools, children are constantly being pressured to work for the narcos. (4) One in five children have quit school out of fear while one in three say they have been directly threatened with death if they didn’t join a gang. With fear of being kidnapped and forced to serve as child soldiers in the gangs or sex slaves, and death threats being sent to their families, almost half of children sent back from Mexico will try to leave their home country again. (5) Of 404 children arriving from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees interviewed, 58 percent said their primary reason for leaving was violence, a sharp increase from the 13 percent found in a similar study conducted in 2006. (4) In claiming fear for their safety, Central Americans have ground to apply for asylum in the United States. (6)

The response of the Obama Administration and Homeland security to this refugee crisis has been pitiful. A get-tough-on-immigration stance has mistakenly conflated the rise in refugees with a rise in immigration, to the detriment of legitimate families seeking asylum. In 2014, border patrollers reported to Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, that many families were crossing the border because word had reached Central America that parents with children were being released into the U.S by border agents. (6) Johnson determined that the only way for the U.S to cut down on the rising surge was to demonstrate that asylum seekers wouldn’t receive leniency – the beginning of what he called an “aggressive deterrence strategy”. (1)

With pressure on the White House to show it still took border issues seriously, Johnson won approval from the administration to ramp up the number of family detention centers for asylum seekers. The United States went from maintaining fewer than 100 beds for family detention to making plans for more than 3,000 beds by the end of 2014. (1)

The Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest prison company, has been responsible for the construction of massive detention facilities to house women and children seeking asylum. (1) In a four year, $1 billion contract, the CCA collects $20 million/month from its Dilley facility. In an unusually lucrative deal, CCA is paid for 100 percent capacity regardless of how many people are actually detained at the facility. (1)

While the government had initially intended family detention centers like Dilley to hold families for months at a time, two major court decisions in 2015 effectively changed this policy. In the first decision, a federal judge ordered officials to stop denying bond to Central American asylum seekers for the purpose of deterrence. As a result of the new policy, dropping bond rates have released more women to fight their cases outside of the detention centers. (6) With families being released on average in 22 days, the use of the facilities like Dilley has become haphazard and drastically cost-ineffective. When the facility is half-full, as it has been in previous months, the government spends approximately $570 per day per person. (1)

A second, crucial ruling found the government to be in violation of the Flores agreement, a two-decade old settlement that requires children to be held in the least restrictive environment as possible. (1) In Flores v Meese, all minors who are detained – including those who enter with their parents – must be granted a “general policy favoring release” to the custody of relatives, kept away from unrelated adults, and provided medical care, exercise, and adequate education. (2)

Currently, there are three family detention centers open in the United States. One 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, Texas one for a 532-bed family detention center in Karnes City, Texas and one in Berks County, Pennsylvania for 100 people. (6) Dilley, formally known as the South Texas Family Residential Center, has a basketball gym, school for children, medical clinic, and beauty salon. (6) Yet while the facilities themselves may provide an illusion of well-being, the women and children who are detained there quickly see through the facade.  


Women and children experience a series of traumatic human rights violations from the moment they are taken in by the U.S border patrol to the moment they arrive at the detention centers. From being detained in iceboxes known as hieleras to dog hounds known as perreras, women and their children experience extreme cold, separation of families, and little to no privacy. When families then arrive at a center like Dilley, they often feel relief to be in a place with real food, clean clothing, and doctors available to check for contagious diseases.  

Yet within a few weeks, the women and children express frustration and sadness at being detained. Detainees describe the medical clinic as understaffed with sickness running rampant among the children. (6) The foreignness of the environment compounded with the trauma they’ve experienced results in some children refusing to eat. Housed in barracks with up to twelve other people, the living conditions of women and their children stand in direct violation of Flores.

Moreover, “the automatic detention of children and families seeking asylum, even for several weeks rather than months, still violates international human rights law.” While the United States and Somalia are the only countries in the world that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is still bound as a signatory to not take actions that would defeat its objective. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has concluded unquestionably that the “immigration detention of children is never in their best interests and is not justifiable.” (7)

While families at Dilley and Karnes can expect to be released on average in 22 days, cases that take longer than 22 days are transferred to Berks where there are women and children who have been detained for over a year. Regardless of the length of their confinement, research shows that confinement even for short periods of time still damages children. Detention of under two weeks is associated with negative health outcomes and potential long-term health and developmental consequences. (7)

According to Human Rights First, “leading pediatricians, physicians, and social workers have described the negative effects of immigration detention on children, which includes behavioral regressions, depression, anxiety, and suicidality.” High numbers of women are victims of domestic violence, and have also reported symptoms related to PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder. (7)

Given that studies have shown that the vast majority of detainees who are released from custody with some form of monitoring will appear in court, the use of family detention centers only presents an egregious, unnecessary human rights violation. 98 percent of mothers who have legal representation appear for their immigration court hearings. An additional study concludes that 93 percent of detainees will appear in court if placed into a monitoring program. (7) As they stand today, family detention centers only further victimize an already deeply traumatized and vulnerable population.


(1) “Inside the administration’s $1 billion deal to detain Central American asylum seekers,” Chico Harlan, The Washington Post.
(2) “The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps,” Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times.
(3) “Migrant Children Deserve a Voice in Court,” The Editorial Board, The New York Times.
(4) “The Children of the Drug Wars: A Refugee Crisis, Not an Immigration Crisis,” Sonia Nazario, The New York Times.
(5) Gang violence in El Salvador fuelling country’s child migration crisis,” Nina Lakhani, The Guardian.
(6) Hope and Despair as Families Languish in Texas Immigration Centers,” Julia Preston, The New York Times.
(7) “Family Detention Still Happening, Still Damaging,” Human Rights First.


Laura Plata ‘19 is a prospective Sociology major in Berkeley College. Contact her at