Family Detention and Its Violence: A History


Rosa Shapiro-Thompson

Rosa Shapiro-Thompson is a senior history major at Yale University and member of the Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights at the law school’s Schell Center, where her interests center on conflict and migration. Outside of the classroom, Rosa has served as the president of the Yale Refugee Project and as a U-Visa volunteer at the New Haven Legal Aid Association, and she has worked as a Policy Intern at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). She also helped organize a youth group for local refugee women as a Dwight Hall Urban Fellow at Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) of New Haven. Having studied Arabic in the United States, Oman, and Jordan, Rosa now serves a teaching assistant for first-year Arabic.


The story begins like this: her intimate partner commits an act of violence. He is a member of maras, or maybe it’s Calle 18. He beats her; he violates her; he threatens to kill her or to kill their child, and, in this moment—whichever moment this moment may be—the danger of staying outweighs the danger of leaving. She decides to flee. With her child, she risks the journey from El Salvador, and they make their way across Guatemala and then Mexico. She is lucky—lucky in the sense that, despite other harms they may endure, they do not become more bodies in a mass grave or in the desert—and they cross Mexico’s northern border. They are apprehended, and almost removed, except that she responds to the immigration official that, yes, yes she is afraid. They are detained and shipped to Dilley, Texas, to the euphemistically named “South Texas Family Residential Center.”

She follows the footsteps of many before her who have navigated the North American migratory circuit, her flight from El Salvador to the United States reproducing a social practice—migrancy—that precedes the formation of nation-states.[1] But today she encounters a new system of militarized control deployed against her. Its enforcement mechanisms have transformed the migratory trail she negotiates into one of violence and of catastrophic loss;[2] her incarceration at Dilley holds her captive, for she is at once understood by the state as an unauthorized border crosser in violation of its laws and as a victim who may make claim to asylum. At Dilley, a 2,400-bed immigrant detention center that only detains women and their children, she joins hundreds of other detained women, the vast majority of whom are Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States—refugees in all but legal status. This is the policy to which the Trump administration has returned following its “zero-tolerance” separation of children from their parents. This is the now-routine policy of family detention, the mandatory administrative detention of asylum seekers crossing from Mexico into the United States.

In response to the unprecedented media attention that family separation commanded, this paper takes up indefinite family detention, the apparent status quo. While the attention and due outrage began to bring to light a broader landscape of violence of which family separation was part, by nature reporters latched onto the most acute violence, in its most sympathetic form. Stark photos of screaming toddlers plastered front pages. As family separation again becomes indefinite family detention, under an ever-constricting and harshening asylum system, it is crucial to look to the less obvious forms of violence that attend these acute and highly visible moments of trauma.

This paper seeks to situate the phenomenon of family detention—and the South Texas Family Residential Center in particular—within the history of US refugee and asylum policy, on one hand, and within the history of immigrant detention, on the other. It presents no sharp thesis; rather, its aim is to present family detention as a part of wholes. It insists that we understand Dilley as more than an isolated prison in rural Texas at which a singular rights violation occurs and works from the initial premise that Dilley is not the only point of injury, crisis, need, and state violence that its women and children experience. Rather, when immigration officials detain migrant women and children, this is part of their entire experience of flight, migration, and seeking refuge, just as passing their “credible fear” interviews is but one part of an overwhelming, bewildering, and demanding asylum process. That is, detainees encounter Dilley as one site of carceral violence within much larger systems of bureaucratic and administrative violence. In order to make visible the structural forms of violence that surround family detention, this paper begins with the history of US refugee and asylum policy, paying particular attention to the exclusion of Central Americans. It then moves to the history of immigration detention, of which family detention is one ‘highly sympathetic” iteration.[3] Here it tells of the pivotal institutionalization of family detention in 2006 and its reinstatement in 2014. Lastly, it returns to asylum policy to meditate on the role of Dilley and the advocate. In this history it hopes to make visible the structural forms of violence that surround family detention, and indeed family separation, that do not make the front page.


The Historical Asylum System and International Refugee Regime

The state uses administrative detention at Dilley to hold migrants while it works to distinguish between those with and without “credible fear,” between those “illegal,” criminal border crossers to be removed and those potential asylees to be released to face the asylum process. On the one hand, detainees at Dilley have hope of a path to status that millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States do not share. If a detainee eventually succeeds in applying for asylum and her request is granted, she receives a Social Security number and work authorization and she becomes eligible for permanent resident status. On the other, the state locks up the asylum-seekers at Dilley, and at its counterpart facilities in Karnes, Texas and Berks, Pennsylvania, as if they were criminals—for only the crime of seeking safety. Asylum law requires that the applicant is present in the United States to request asylum; there is no way for the detainees to seek protection without border-crossing. Their incarceration functions as punishment for this act. The Department of Homeland Security and the private contractors who operate the facility hail family detention as “an effective and humane alternative to maintain family unity,” but the state’s insistence that “administrative detention” is non-punitive easily gives way under the crushing evidence of reports from inside detention centers.[4] This maltreatment of Central American refugee families at Dilley, Karnes, and Berks follows patterns of exclusion embedded in the formation of US refugee policy.

The United States first began to articulate a policy of offering protection to those displaced by violence and persecution in the wake of the Second World War.[5] Then, the United States had just ended its horrific large-scale internment of Japanese-Americans, and the immigration system still operated under the 1924 Immigration Act, which had imposed a racist national origins quota system. Migration to the United States was at a record low: as historian David Gutiérrez documents, “enforcement of the 1924 immigration law, the deepening depression, and the outbreak of World War II [had] combined to disrupt an almost uninterrupted pattern of migration and settlement dating to the end of the Civil War.”[6] Throughout the 1950s and 60s, however, the legislature began to grant the executive more discretionary control to accept refugees as a sense of obligation grew out of new international systems and treaties. Finally, in 1965 the seminal Immigration and National Act replaced the national origin quota system, and in its place followed a preference system that favored relatives and skilled workers and tied entry more explicitly to the professed needs of the labor market. The Act codified a space for refugees within the preference system, giving them a small numerical allotment and the seventh and last priority for legal entry. Crucially, for the first time, the Act limited migration from the Western Hemisphere, ushering in an era of illegalization of Latinx migrants and growth of the undocumented population.

Meanwhile, as decolonization swept the globe, and as imperial Cold-War rivalries inflamed local conflicts throughout the formerly colonized world, Cold War geopolitics drove the emerging US policy towards the displaced. During the Cold War, as María Cristina García, a historian of migration, writes, “[e]scape from a communist country was often sufficient to gain admission to the United States, and the terms ‘defector,’ ‘escapee,’ ‘refugee,’ and ‘parolee’ were used interchangeably by policymakers as well as journalists.”[7] Hence, a majority of refugees admitted to the United States came from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba. García also documents that most other Cold-War migrants offered protection as refugees originated from Europe’s Eastern bloc and from China, Cambodia, and Laos. These refugees fleeing communist countries became, García writes, “powerful ideological symbols of an innate human need to live in free societies.”[8] Refugee policy thus often operated as a thinly veiled instrument of Cold War politics. Its service to the reigning ideology of anti-communism functioned, too, to exclude those who sought refuge from right-wing US-supported regimes.

For this reason, many Central Americans who sought protection in the United States from the civil wars and upheaval of 1974 to 1996 received a far colder welcome than Cubans and Vietnamese. Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled brutal civil wars in which the United States had intervened on the side of right-wing governments and funded death squads. Not surprisingly, then, from 1980 to 1990, the US granted asylum to less than 3 percent of Salvadorans and Guatemalans who applied.[9] While the 1980 landmark Refugee Act establishing a refugee bureaucracy and asylum system had sought to make the admission process less blatantly political, it still operated for Cold-War ends. As one Salvadoran refugee commented, “The Reagan Administration doesn’t want to accept us as refugees because it would be admitting that the military aid it sends to El Salvador does not help, rather destroys and creates refugees. I didn’t come here because I wanted to. I had no economic need to come. I left my country because I had to.”[10]

Not only did the Reagan Administration perpetuate the Cold-War preferences in refugee admissions, but, in order to absolve itself of responsibility, it went further: it insisted that all Central American migration was economically motivated, rather than driven by violence and fear of persecution.[11] In this vein the administration sought to deny entry and membership even to those Nicaraguans fleeing the left-wing Sandinistas, which was shocking given the ends the administration went to in order to support the right-wing Contras and its general obsession with overthrowing the Sandinistas. Only through hard-fought struggles did migrants and their allies, particularly the church-based Sanctuary Movement, win better treatment and manage to successfully carve out protections such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), created in 1990; Deferred Enforced Departure (DED); and a more just asylum adjudication process.[12] Through organizing and litigation, García shows, Central Americans successfully “manipulate[ed] state discourses in order to pry the door open” to societies rationing their membership.[13] Central Americans today engage in the same struggle, from the hunger-striking mothers of Berks to the caravans of queer migrants rallying for protection at the Arizona-Sonora border.[14]


Family Detention Within Immigrant Detention

Family detention must be understood within the history of US policy towards Central American asylum seekers and also within the broader immigration detention regime of which it is part. While family detention may indeed merit its own particular scrutiny for its treatment of asylum seekers as well as the absurd and extreme violation that is the imprisonment of children, migration scholar David Hernández puts it best: “family detention […] is a highly sympathetic version of a larger problem [emphasis added].”[15] While Dilley and its counterpart facilities in Karnes, Texas, and Berks, Pennsylvania, together maintain 3,326 beds—a sterile and vaguely dehumanizing shorthand for the capacity of the state to hold bodies—this number is dwarfed by those of the larger immigrant detention regime. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains 400,000 individuals each year in over 200 detention centers, many run by private prison corporations.[16] An unprecedented 2009 quota system mandates that ICE fill 34,000 beds each night.[17] The quota ensures a steady flow of federal funds to contractors and, moreover, leads to the catastrophe of immigration detention, “the large-scale detention and punishment of persons who have not committed crimes, or persons who have served their time, without standards for their incarceration nor a robust legal defense,” Hernández writes.[18]

When the first, and smallest, family detention facility opened in March 2001 in Berks County, Pennsylvania, a large immigration detention regime had already grown out of pivotal 1996 immigration legislation. [19] The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), historian of immigration detention Stephanie Silverman writes, “changed the vocabulary of US immigration law by streamlining deportation and exclusion proceedings into ‘removal’ proceedings.” It also authorized the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), subsumed under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the aftermath of 9/11, to contract with state and local law enforcement agencies to detain immigrants.[20] Most importantly, it amended the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, subjecting certain classifications of non-citizens to mandatory detention and specifying enforcement priorities that tied immigration enforcement to the criminal justice system, prioritizing the detention and deportation of those immigrants with criminal history. This post-1996 era was an expanded institutionalization of what had been practiced before: at Ellis Island, in Japanese internment camps, after the Mariel boatlift of Cubans and Haitians in the 1980s.[21] Pre-and post-IIRIRA, the United States deployed immigration detention as a coercive policy instrument against migrants and residents of certain national backgrounds. This story of immigration detention overlays and prefaces the particular story of family detention.

Understanding family detention first as a “sympathetic” iteration of immigration detention helps resist the blinding effect that the plight of women and children often has. It also nurtures a better analysis: family detention policy is intimately bound up in many of the same processes and discursive shifts as immigrant detention as a whole. For instance, sociologist Patrisia Macías-Rojas proposes one particularly useful framework in her From Deportation to Prison. As she argues, the punitive turn in immigration enforcement, of which family detention is part, has occurred in a “post-civil rights borderland” in which expanded civil rights and greater punishment, although seemingly contradictory, actually work in concert.[22] As she writes, “the new immigration regime in place today operates within post-civil rights ‘antidiscrimination’ constitutional frameworks in ways that recognize rights for certain “victims,” while aggressively punishing and banishing those branded as criminal.”[23] Dilley’s detainees, both criminalized and acknowledged as having claim to protection and immigration relief, display the logic of this post-civil rights enforcement terrain, and its tensions, at full force.


Calls for Harsher Enforcement: 2001–2006

In March 2001, when Berks, with an original 84-bed capacity,[24] began separating immigrant mothers, fathers, and their minor children from the other detainees, it was not yet family detention as it exists today; the mandatory administrative detention of asylum seekers crossing from Mexico into the United States was not yet in place. Before the September 11th attacks and the aftermath of ratcheted up enforcement policies, asylum seekers apprehended at the border were generally released into the community to await their asylum hearings. But some asylum seekers would not appear in court to complete the difficult asylum process, and this policy came under increasing attack by anti-immigrant voices, who, as if talking about hunting, termed it “catch and release.” These voices criticized the asylum system as fraudulent, a loophole for “illegal” immigrants to get status. To this day Attorney General Jeff Sessions attacks asylum with this very claim.

After the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002, which subsumed immigration enforcement under its mandate of national security, its new agencies, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), turned expedited removal on more migrants, including asylum seekers and families. The United States largely abandoned its earlier policies of releasing families or placing the few families it did detain in separate units. Amidst the territorial anxieties and fervor for securitization that followed 9/11, ICE began separating parents from children and from each other.[25] The stories of separated families reached Congress, and in 2005 the House Appropriations Committee directed DHS to stop separating families, writing that the Committee “expects DHS to release families or use alternatives to detention such as the Intensive Supervised Appearance Program [monitored community release] whenever possible. When detention of family units is necessary, the Committee directs DHS to use appropriate detention space to house them together.”[26]


The 2006 Expansion: Carceral Violence and its Humanitarian Disguise

But Bush’s Department of Homeland Security did not release more families. Nor did it use alternatives to detention. In fact, it did not even use “appropriate detention space” to “house” the families it detained. Rather, it opened the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, in a former medium security prison, contracting with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private-prison contractor in the United States and in the world. CCA, though it had been previously mired in scandal, understood the strategies of warehouseing and managing a captive population better than ICE. As Dora Schriro, a former prison warden and senior advisor to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano who later became ICE’s first director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning under Obama, lamented, ICE’s capabilities in the field of detention did not match its capacity in enforcement. Yet even people like Schriro, deeply embedded and complicit in mass incarceration and in immigrant detention, could recognize family detention as aberrant and impermissible. She writes in her history of family detention:

Neither its physical plant and programs nor its policies and practices were age-appropriate or family friendly. The cinderblock facility had no windows, the corridors were long, and metal bars on windows and solid steel door still remained in place from the time that the facility housed adult male sheriff’s prisoners. Movement within the facility and access to the grounds were severely restricted and age-appropriate programs were negligible. There were reoccurring reports of medical and mental health care resulting in weight loss, depression, and other documented conditions.

Indeed, Schriro’s experience in prison management lends extra weight to her condemnation of “family residential center” as prison-like.

The list went on: one teenage boy testified to his humiliation at sharing a small cell with his mother and being unable to use the toilet—unenclosed, shared in their cell—in privacy, and being unable to leave when she used it. There was no prenatal care. Mothers had fifteen minutes to eat with their child before they needed to be back in the cell.[27] Almost all complaints went unanswered. Children, because of the strict policy of not separating families, were often forced to listen when their parents recounted their experiences of torture and rape to the asylum officers. A guard at Hutto was caught on video “engaging in sexual activity with a female detainee in the cell that she shared with her young child” in 2007.[28] Even though any sexual activity between a correctional officer and inmate is a federal crime, the guard was not prosecuted because immigration detention was not included in the law. Similar reports continued to emerge from other centers, reports of guards coercing detainees into sex and guards soliciting sex from women in front of their children.[29]

After the guard’s abuse of power at Hutto surfaced, and among ongoing protests, the county commissioners became concerned, albeit briefly, about their potential liability. In a public hearing on the issue, Hutto administrators and the center’s supporters in the county—which was itself receiving $15,800 a month for housing the center—continued to frame themselves as protectors of families. Yet one of the county commissioners let slip a comment that may point, more accurately, to the underlying motivation for detention. She said, “the thing we forget is the adults who are being detained have broken the law […] children sometimes have to suffer for the sins of their parents—suffer, if you can call it that, because of their parents’ choices.”[30] This acknowledgement—that family detention seeks to punish both children and parents for unauthorized border-crossing—undermines any claims to “protecting” the detained families.


Expose and Close Hutto

A year after Hutto began detaining families, litigation led by the ACLU of Texas and Barbara Hines of University of Texas’s Immigration Clinic succeeded in reaching a settlement that drastically improved conditions in the center. A 1997 Supreme Court Case, Flores v. Reno, had held that minors in immigration custody be released whenever possible, and if placed in detention, must be in the “least restrictive setting possible.”[31] After the victory, grassroots mobilization, media pressure, and the advocates continued to propel the campaign to close Hutto for good; they knew that a settlement improving conditions was not enough. It was not just that Hutto needed education for its children and sufficient medical care. Beyond the horror of the center’s inhumane, prison-like conditions and its abuses, detention—in and of itself—was profoundly punitive and entirely inappropriate.

In detention, both mothers and their children endure incalculable psychological damage. Children who were potty-trained begin having accidents; older ones attempt suicide. As the detained women of Berks, announcing their hunger strike, testified in an open letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson in 2016:

The teenagers say that being here, life makes no sense. One of our children said he wanted to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare. On many occasions, our children ask us if we have the courage to escape. They grab the chord that holds their ID cards and tighten it around their necks, saying they want to die if they don’t get out. And the smallest children, who are only two years old, cry during the night because they cannot express what they feel. For some time, our children have not eaten well, and they have lost weight.[32]

Detention is depressing; it is re-traumatizing; it even, demonstrably, makes kids sick. Detention robs migrants of their ability to parent: corrections officers sometimes discipline the children and the nature of detention deprives mothers of authority by default. When a child needs something, his parent is unable to provide; when he asks to leave his mother is powerless. Detention, too, one scholar argues, “works to destabilize migrant’s support networks.” Through “spatial strategies” it isolates them in remote locations, in turn distancing migrants from social and legal services.[33]


2014 Crisis and Obama’s Response: Artesia, Karnes, and Dilley

President Obama gave detained migrants and advocates hope when he announced the closing of Hutto in 2009. But in 2009, despite his initial promises to end family detention, he reconstituted the policy in its most expansive form yet. ICE opened three new centers in Karnes, Artesia, and Dilley, Texas. Like others justifying family detention in the Bush era, the Obama administration represented itself as searching for a humane way to deal with a difficult “crisis” while keeping families together as unaccompanied minors and Central American families were arriving at the border in record numbers.

In these new centers, more absurd stories emerged: in one, there was no toilet paper for months; another banned crayons for being too dangerous. The absence of toilet paper exhibits a severe bureaucratic neglect that, functioning on a systemic level, often leaves detainees without dignity: one former detainee testified that the conditions resembled those of animals.[34] Meanwhile, the crayon-ban makes clear that, despite its playground, Dilley functions not as a “family residential center” but as a prison. Like at Hutto, migrants continued to contest their treatment, and along with advocates fought a campaign to “expose and close” Artesia, where the most egregious abuses were occurring. Although they were apparently successful and ICE did close the facility, it opened Dilley just a day later. Over three times the capacity of Artesia, Dilley, at 2,400 beds, could hold over half the town’s population.

The purpose of this last, still ongoing iteration of family detention was deterrence.[35] The administration wanted to stem the flow, to show future migrants they would not be welcomed with open arms. At the opening of the South Texas Family Residential Center, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson flew to Dilley. His speech there explicitly linked the detention of families to deterrence: “this must be clear going forward,” he said, standing in front of the center, “our borders are not open to illegal migration.”[36] The PR-strategy was complete with an ad blitz throughout Central America.[37]

To run the center, ICE contracted CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, the mis-manager of Hutto. According to Washington Post reporting, the four-year, billion-dollar contract pays CoreCivic not per head but in a fixed monthly fee, “regardless of how many people are detained at the facility.”[38] This contract has proven immensely lucrative. The Post writes: “in 2015, the first full year in which the South Texas Family Residential Center was operating, CCA [now CoreCivic]—which operates 74 facilities—made 14 percent of its revenue from that one center while recording record profit.” The local economy in Dilley, too, has come to depend on the center. The financial interest of private prison contractors and of small, failing towns plays a key role in perpetuating family detention policy as it draws on increased anti-immigrant anxiety and calls for even stricter enforcement in the post-9/11 era.


Asylum and Rights

At Dilley, migrants and their lawyers encounter the South Texas Family Residential Center as but one part of the asylum process. At best, the asylum process that the women and children of Dilley face is unwelcoming; at worst, it is life threatening and operates in violation of human rights and international law. Women and their children wait in detention until their fear of returning home is determined “credible.” They are asked to repeatedly recount past trauma in excruciating detail to prove their deservingness of immigration relief. If the asylum officer does not find a detainee’s claims credible, she will be deported; if she passes this test, she begins the race to file an asylum application before the one-year filing deadline asylum process, likely without access to legal counsel.

Family detention raises a number of concerns within domestic and international law: about children’s rights and the “best interest” of the child, about due process within the US legal system, about non-refoulement, in the case of expedited and non-expedited removal. The backlogged asylum system, especially with Trump’s new hiring processes for immigration judges underway, does not help.[39] It also raises concerns about the place and subjectivity of the legal volunteer, operating within the CARA Pro-Bono project in a kind of symbiosis with the facility, helping the facility administer and identify those migrants to protect.

As during the Cold War, the asylum system today demands certain narratives of advocates. It forces lawyers and their clients towards narratives of the US-as-savior laid in stark contrast to the rest of the world, sketched in crude stereotypes “consist[ing] of interchangeable anecdotes of suffering, scarcity, and repression,” reformed immigration lawyer Jawziya Zaman writes. It thus absolves the United States of its guilt, rendering invisible its role fomenting violence, causing war, and otherwise exacerbating conditions around the world. Volunteers at Dilley collect horrific stories of violence and abuse, “always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order” and work them into narratives with the best chances in front of the asylum officer.[40] Asylum is flawed: even prior to Session’s gutting, it was too narrow, too impossibly bureaucratic, too violent towards those it would seek to protect, and too dishonest about what causes displacement in the first place. Family detention’s history helps move us beyond the decontextualized pathos of the media to examine the flaws of the asylum system and the violent functions of immigrant detention in order to understand the processes that enable its violence. 


[1] Alicia Schmidt Camacho, “What is a migrant?” Migrants and Borders in the Americas, Yale University, New Haven, CT. 12 September 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Hernández, “The Least of These: Family Detention in America.” Latino Studies 9 (1): 160-162. 2011. doi:

[4] Carl Takei, “The ‘South Texas Family Residential Center’ Is No Haven: It’s an Internment Camp,” ACLU National Prison Project, The American Civil Liberties Union, 21 May 2015. See also The Least of These.

[5] María Cristina García, The Refugee Challenge in Post-Cold War America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 4.

[6] David G. Gutiérrez, “The Politics of the Interstices: Reflections on Citizenship and Non-Citizenship at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, Vol. 1, No. 1, Transnational Migration, Race, and Citizenship (Autumn, 2007): 109. After the proportion of the total US population that was foreign born remained above 12 to 15 percent for half a century from 1860 to 1930 during a period of intense globalization and human movement—in 1920 comprising a full quarter of the population— “the foreign-born contracted to 11 percent of the population in 1930, shrank to less than 9 percent in 1940, and dipped below 6 percent in 1950” (109). According to Gutiérrez, “by 1970, the foreign-born dropped below 5 percent of the total population for the first time in US history” (109).

[7] Garcia, The Refugee Challenge, 4.

[8] Garcia, The Refugee Challenge, 6.

[9] Susan Gzesh, “Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era,” Migration Policy Institute, 1 April 2006.

[10] García, Seeking Refuge, 84.

[11] Through her transnational history, Garcia refutes the administration’s argument that Central American refugees, if they were really fleeing persecution, would have settled further south.

[12] Now, TPS is set to expire in March 2018 for the 195,000 Salvadorans currently relying on the program for status in the United States. Barring any unexpected political changes, the Trump administration will likely refuse to renew the program as it did for Haitians and Nicaraguans. See the foremost advocacy group here:

[13] García, Seeking Refuge, 118. See García for a transnational story of Central Americans seeking refuge from 1974–1996. García’s book examines in depth not just the United States but also Mexico and Canada, and she also briefly covers neighboring countries such as Costa Rica.

[14] “Caravan Of 16 Transgender & Gay Central American Migrants Seeking Asylum To Arrive At US-Mexico Border,” National Immigrant Justice Center, 10 August 2017.

[15] David Hernández, “The Least of These: Family Detention in America.” Latino Studies 9 (1): 160-162. 2011. doi:

[16] Michelle Mark, “Private Prison Companies Are Saying Trump’s Immigration Crackdown is Looking Good for Business,” Business Insider, 9 August 2017.

[17] “Immigration Detention Bed Quota,” National Immigrant Justice Center, March 2016.

[18] Hernández, “The Least of These.”

[19] Of course, immigration detention dates back much further than 1996. See Stephanie J. Silverman’s “Immigration Detention in America: A History of its Expansion and a Study of its Significance.” Center on Migration, Policy and Society. Working Paper No. 80, University of Oxford, 2010.

[20] Ibid, 13.

[21] Ibid, 1.

[22] Macías-Rojas, p15-22. Here, Macías-Rojas draws on a number of scholars who study not migration but punishment and the state, particularly the relationship between mass incarceration and civil rights. Particularly relevant for this paper, she points to Naomi Murakawa’s theory of the “civil rights carceral state,” which understands mass incarceration as complemented, and perhaps enabled, by a civil rights discourse.

[23] Macías-Rojas, p11.

[24] “Report of the DHS Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 30 September 2016.

[25] Dora Schriro, “”Weeping in the Playtime of Others: The Obama Administration’s Failed Reform of ICE Family Detention Practices,” Journal on Migration and Human Security, 5, no. 2 (April 2017).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Lyda, The Least of These.

[28] Talbot, Margaret. “The Lost Children.” The New Yorker. 3 March 2008.

[29] Gossage, No Sanctuary: Big Business and Family Detention.

[30] Lyda, The Least of These. See also Talbot, “The Lost Children.”

[31] Ibid. 

[32] “An Open Letter to Jeh Johnson: Libertad Para Nuestras Familias,” Human Rights First, 10 August 2016.

[33] Laurel L. Martin, “‘Catch and Remove’: Detention, Deterrence, and Discipline in US Noncitizen Family Detention Practice.” Journal of Geopolitics, Vol. 17, 2012.

[34] See Gossage, No Sanctuary for the testimony of a former detainee, Bessey. 

[35] The courts later ruled this deterrence strategy unacceptable and, amid public outcry, it was eventually abandoned. See the Lowenstein clinic’s “U.S. Detention and Removal of Asylum Seekers: An International Human Rights Law Analysis” for Human Rights First.

[36] Jeh Johnson, “Statement by Secretary Johnson Regarding Today’s Trip to Texas,” Department of Homeland Security, 15 December 2014.

[37] Chico Harlan, “Inside the administration’s $1 billion deal to detain Central American asylum seekers,” The Washington Post, 14 August 2016.

[38] Ibid.

[39] “Tilted Justice: Backlogs Grow While Fairness Shrinks in Immigration Courts.” Human Rights First. October 2017.

[40] Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends, 7. While Luiselli writes of her experience translating for unaccompanied minors to help with their legal proceedings, it is a similar experience at Dilley.


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Bakst, Eleni. “Immigration Detention is Making Kids Sick.” Human Rights First. 22 November 2017.

“Berks Family Residential Center, Bio-Annual Compliance Review Report.” Prepared by the Nakamoto Group, Inc. for the US Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Detention and Removal, Juvenile and Family Residential management Unit. 2008.

 “Caravan Of 16 Transgender & Gay Central American Migrants Seeking Asylum To Arrive At US-Mexico Border.” National Immigrant Justice Center. 10 August 2017.

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“Expose and Close: Artesia Family Residential Center, New Mexico.” Detention Watch Network. Sept 2014.

“Family Detention in Berks County, Pennsylvania.” Human Rights First. August 2015.

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Fernández, Valeria. “These Asylum-Seekers Are Being Forced to Raise Their Kids in Immigration ‘Jails’.” Public Radio International. 7 July 2016.

García, María Cristina. Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

—. The Refugee Challenge in Post-Cold War America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Gidda, Mirren. “”Private Prison Company GEO Group Gave Generously to Trump and Now Has Lucrative Contract.” Newsweek. 11 May 2017.

Gossage, Matthew, dir. No Sanctuary: The Big Business of Family Detention. Grassroots Leadership, 2014.

Gutiérrez, David G. “The Politics of the Interstices: Reflections on Citizenship and Non-Citizenship at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, Vol. 1, No. 1, Transnational Migration, Race, and Citizenship. Autumn, 2007, pp. 89-120.

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