The Banality of Evil: A Week in One of Obama’s “Family” Detention Centers for Central American Asylum Seekers

— The reason I don’t know the father’s name is because I don’t know the father. I became pregnant after I was raped by a masked man who broke into my house and held a knife to my throat.

— Oh…sorry to hear that.

The disembodied voice of the translator through the phone is matched by the flat, emotionless response of the asylum officer, who didn’t even make eye contact, while the young woman and I sit waiting for the next question. The small office is inside a temporary trailer and is completely unexceptional: an oversized Dell computer and monitor, a standard office phone, blank walls, and uncomfortable, ugly plastic chairs.

For me, this one interaction captures the bland indifference and inhumanity of the ongoing mass incarceration of children and women seeking asylum at the “family” detention center in Dilley, Texas. I observed firsthand this interaction and many others during one week volunteering at the Dilley detention center. These centers are part of a failed policy to deter legitimate asylum seekers from coming to the U.S. that is hugely expensive, inhumane, and discriminatory.

What compelled Myra, a single indigenous Guatemalan mother — whose only child is the product of a violent rape by a masked man, who started receiving violent threats from gangs to surrender her daughter into prostitution, along with details that showed they knew where she lived and where her daughter went to school — to leave everything that she owns behind her, walking out of the only village she has ever lived in, and travel alone with her daughter on foot and by bus almost 2,000 dangerous miles to the Texas border?

It is a question the Obama Administration has considered, and decided that the most likely reason is economic migration, masquerading as asylum requests. Therefore, the Obama Administration decided that the appropriate (and illegal) response is one of mass incarceration. The Obama Administration decided to incarcerate women who seek asylum from three Central American countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — in detention centers run by private for-profit corporations in two isolated towns in Texas.

The “Family” Detention Center in Dilley, Texas

To deter women from seeking asylum, the Obama Administration detains them with their children. Notably, this only happens to women with children, not men. In a piece of doublespeak worthy of Brave New World or 1984, the administration has created “family” detention centers, where a family is defined as a mother and her children — which is to say, they are forcibly separated from their husbands and any adult children before being detained. If a father and his child are captured by the US border patrol, they are separated because that does not constitute a family in this mini-archipelago of banal idiocy.

The internationally agreed-upon standard is to release asylum seekers into the community while their claim is considered, and this is cheaper, far more humane, and permits an asylum-seeker to attend her court hearings in a non-detained setting. Study after study demonstrates that women seeking asylum appear at their hearings, making detention while the case is pending unnecessary. This forced incarceration of legitimate asylum seekers, deliberately singled out for their nationality, is the greatest U.S. abuse of detention policy since the Japanese internment during World War II.

Japanese children at the Heart Mountain concentration camp for Japanese citizens during World War II, where my grandmother was an elementary school teacher. Source: Evelyn Dell Collection, http://ddr.densho.org/ddr/densho/152/17/

What compelled Julissa, a single illiterate Honduran mother of two — who has been raped and physically abused by her father, beaten until she has scars on her chest and arms by her ex-husband, abandoned by her ex-husband when she was pregnant with their second child, who accidentally witnessed a gang murder from her window and subsequently received death threats from the gang — to leave her country with her two young children and travel in a group of strangers all the way to the border with Texas?

Is it for the luxurious detention center that awaits them? The center is a nondescript collection of temporary trailers among open yards that have turned into baked mud flats in the recent Texas rains. Freedom of movement is restricted, and access to buildings is controlled by locked doors that can only be opened by staff. Most of the women I spoke with readily conceded that they are treated reasonably well at the centers, at least when compared with how their treatment in their home countries, but most suffer from severe anxiety over their their uncertain future and how their children are coping with the incarceration.

As for the town where the center is located, Dilley, Texas is a wholly unremarkable place that boasts a population of barely 4,000, encourages visitors to “enjoy a slice of the good life,” and boasts a super-sized sculpture of a sliced watermelon in the main park. (The other Texas town is Karnes City, about two hours drive from Dilley.) On my third day volunteering, I walked into a convenience store to buy a pack of gum, and I ended up talking with the owner at the cash register. After noting that I was not from Dilley, since he knew everyone in town by name, he told me that the center was popular because it brought so many jobs. When I told him about the work that we were doing and what the detainees had overcome, he paused and noted that his father had been a Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. illegally. He thought about it for a minute, shrugged, and thanked me for coming by.

The government has said that 88% of the women are are substantially likely to win asylum because their claims are credible. Why, then, are we detaining children and women who have been brutally traumatized in their home countries, who have strong asylum claims, who have no criminal history, and who want nothing more than to protect themselves and their children from violence, rape, and death? A recent New York Times article on “family” detention highlighted that the rationale behind this policy is deterrence, noting that “the center [in Dilley] is a crucial part of the Obama administration’s strategy to avert another influx like the one last summer, when nearly 70,000 parents with children overwhelmed the authorities along the Southwest line.” This is an appalling rationale when these are legitimate asylum seekers, no different than a boat of migrants fleeing the situation in Syria arriving in Europe and being sent back.

A family celebrates their freedom after over 3 months of detention in the center in Dilley, Texas. June, 2015

One of the most amazing elements of the experience for me was seeing how the immigration law community has organized to fight this detention of women and children. The effort to provide the detainees with pro bono legal counsel has been organized by an incredibly passionate and dedicated team (see www.caraprobono.org). Each week a small team of 5–12 volunteers shows up to the center to work with the two full-time staff on the ground, and by documenting every interaction in a database, the detainees receive counsel despite a constantly changing set of faces. A larger network of volunteers across the country volunteer their time to prepare bond documents and anything else that does not have to be done in person, supporting the “on the ground” team that is working 12–14 hour days. More than any project I have been involved in, every volunteer counts.

What compelled Yessenia, a Salvadoran mother of one — who was raped at 13 by a neighbor, whose child’s father is a wealthy man twice her age who would verbally, physically, and sexually assault her, who was extorted by the gangs to pay them bribes from her small business selling seafood, and who saw a friend who refused to pay the same bribes end up with three bullets in her chest and her head split in two from a machete — to leave her country with her daughter and nothing else?

Is it for the opportunity to make a better living? The situation in these three countries has deteriorated so badly that they are virtually failed states. The gangs, flush with resources and weapons from the drug trade, each control their own areas, and they work together to keep the entire population in check — above all else, single mothers and the indigenous peoples of these countries. The police have been bought off completely, and there is no legal structure or government power that can protect their people. And, their cultures are among the most misogynistic in the world. As documented in all of their stories and numerous expert affidavits we have compiled from experts around the country, women are seen as property to be used, abused, violated, discarded, and killed as the mareros (gang members) see fit.

This entire federal policy is based on an illegal premise (deterrence), violates treaties we have signed about human rights (detaining minors), tears families apart for no reason by virtue of the Orwellian definition of a family as a mother and her underage children, and is a breath-taking waste of money — $343 per day per person. A private prison corporation, Corrections Corporation of America, runs the detention center and earns a profit on every woman and child asylum seeker they incarcerate.

This policy is a failure. A moral, political, pragmatic, and economic failure. And the time has come to end this misguided policy and the pointless misery it is inflicting.

A drawing from one of the children incarcerated at Artesia, New Mexico, where the asylum seekers were kept prior to the center at Dilley, Texas

The week I spent on the ground was one of the most meaningful, challenging, and transformative experiences of my life. If you are interested in helping our efforts to provide free legal counsel to the detained women at the centers in Dilley and Karnes by donating or spending a week volunteering at a center, please visit http://caraprobono.org/


About the author

Cameron Madill is an entrepreneur from Portland, Oregon. His life is defined by an intense passion for learning, triple bottom line businesses, social justice, and world travel.

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