Immigrant Detention: Voices of Humanity – Elaine J. Cohen

DWN End Family Detention PosterImmigrant Detention: Voices of Humanity

This is a featured article from TAASA’s Summer 2015 Newsletter, authored by Elaine J. Cohen, author at The Rag Blog.

I began visiting women in Immigrant Detention in the Fall of 2011. Recently returned to Austin after over four years in Mexico, I was looking for a social justice project where my competency in Spanish would be useful. A friend suggested I volunteer with the Grassroots Leadership’s Hutto Visitation Program and a few weeks later I attended orientation and began to visit women detained in the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas. For the first six months I visited almost weekly with another woman, working on her MSW at UT. That is how I started to know the stories of the women, first from Central America and later from Africa and Asia.

Hutto had been a Family Detention Center until 2009 when a successful campaign by Grassroots Leadership, the UT Immigration Law Clinic, the ACLU, and a long list of individual activists and allies in the larger struggle for Immigrant Rights, brought its closure. The families were released but then it was quickly transformed into an All Women Detention Center. The Hutto Detention Center now holds 512 women and the Hutto Visitation Program continues to visit the women held there.

However, since the last summer when the arrival of hundreds of women with their children began coming across the Southern border, the detention of women and children, once thought to be a closed book, was reopened first in Artesia, New Mexico, then Karnes, Texas. Artesia was closed and the largest residential center for families has been opened in Dilley, Texas.

Racism and violence seem always to travel together. First it was the violence in their home countries that caused hundreds of women and children to flee Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. We have heard stories of spousal abuse, incest, and gang violence. The close relationship between corrupt Police, Military, and gangs means that reporting crime only brings more violence to the victim.

Secondly came the dangerous journey north, at the mercy of unpredictable traffickers or coyotes. While some women prepare by taking birth control pills before leaving, others do not have that foresight or access. Many women brought to the detention facility find out they are pregnant. Although I cannot offer precise documentation, it is my opinion that at least some of these pregnancies were due to rape during their journey. I can say that women described to me their being held for weeks in Mexico. While telling me this they avert their eyes and pause to regain their composure. I have not pressed them as the visiting areas are neither private nor secure.

Finally, the violence of being held in detention must be acknowledged. The scorn and mistreatment many of the women have suffered at the hands of the employees of the private prison corporations that run the centers must be called out as racism. The two Family Detention Centers in Texas are in Karnes, to the southeast of San Antonio and Dilley, to the southwest of San Antonio. Karnes is run by the GEO Group, Inc. and Dilley is run by Corrections Corporation of American (CCA). Both are under the direct supervision of the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).

I first visited women and children at Karnes in the fall of 2014. Since March of 2015 I have visited Karnes almost weekly because one of my colleagues from Austin has been willing to make the long drive. Our weekly visits have produced connections to these families and a growing concern with their stories and evolving legal struggles.

The first woman I visited at Karnes, incarcerated with her three children since August of 2014 was finally released but through knowing her attorney, we began to visit other women. It is imperative their stories are heard beyond the walls of the detention facility.

DWN Obstacles Infographic 2As the women and children fleeing are seeking asylum and thus have open and pending asylum cases, confidentiality is paramount to the potential approval of their asylum case. Thus, all the following stories are composites and written to deliberately obscure the actual identities of the women and children discussed.

I recognize that those who are reading this have studied violence against women more than I have. My entry to this issue came out of a concern about the increasing injustice and racism of our immigration policies.

It has only been through years of listening to one story after another that I realized violence in these women’s lives was a common thread in their decision to exile and become immigrants in our country. Our detention center visits with the women always took place in large, common rooms, with no privacy. For this reason many details were left unsaid – except in the tears and eye contact when words could not be spoken.

I have heard of beatings by family members – fathers, brothers, uncles and husbands. One Honduran woman broke down completely as she told me of the gang that pursued her relentlessly, beatings combined with rape because she had witnessed the murder of her cousin by this gang. Despite her terrible story the immigration judge determined that she should be deported. I spoke to her once after she returned to Honduras but then lost contact with her. I have no idea what has become of her.

One Judge asked a Salvadoran woman why she couldn’t simply move to another town and get away from the gang that was threatening her. She had to explain to him that El Salvador was a very small country and that it could be crossed in a car in four hours. There is no place to go to disappear.

In the conversations at Karnes, the fear the women have is not simply for themselves, but for the children that they brought with them. For boys, it is to escape recruitment into gangs. For girls, it is the constant threat of kidnapping and rape.

On one visit, each of us heard of a young Honduran woman who had just attempted suicide. On their way to meet us, two of our friends had seen her on the gurney being wheeled down the hallway, with her wrist in bandages. The story of this teenage mother has hit the national press – and the horrific story of how she and her young son were deported is now known. She reported mistreatment at the hands of the ICE and GEO officials as well as captivity in a hotel until they deported her. She is back in Honduras. One wonders how long she and her son will survive.

It is only when these detention centers are closed and requests for asylum are properly addressed that the complete stories of the sexual abuse the women have experienced will emerge. Complicity between ICE and the private prison corporations in perpetrating violence against women and children who are legitimate seekers of asylum will finally be exposed – but the lives of their victims will be marked forever.

For those who believe in social justice and the need to resist violence and racism, ending Immigrant Detention is not only imperative but necessary.

Graphics acquired at

Immigrant men, women, and children fleeing violence are highly vulnerable targets in their journey to safety.  TAASA resolves to include those in immigration detention facilities in our advocacy work, recognizes the importance of trauma-informed care, and the importance of survivor-centered strategies necessary to address survivors of sexual assault.

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