Summary of Field Notes

A woman seeking asylum who was recently released from immigration detention in Karnes City, Texas. Photo: Jeff Pearcy.

Violence and gang intimidation in sending country

Many of the women described extreme violence in their countries of origin as motivations for traveling to United States. For example, many of the women reported being extorted by gang members and an inability to pay the money demanded of them. If unable to pay, women or their head of household would be killed by gangs (pandillas, Maras, Mareros). The gangs to which respondents referred were the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Mara 18.

Women reported being sexually abused, assaulted, and extorted in sending countries. The public insecurity in sending countries confined many to their homes until they ran out of food. Respondents reported living under a constant state of surveillance. They reported experiencing extortion through phone calls during which the caller describes family details such as routines and personal characteristics, indicating that they were being watched and heightening the sense of fear and insecurity. Women reported fleeing their hometowns without notice and with limited financial resources.

Several refugees reported that after they ran out of money for extortion, gangs would demand that they hand over their children for recruitment into the gangs. If parents refused to give up their children, they and other members of the family, in addition to the children, would be killed. In one case, a mother reported being ordered to surrender her toddler for a human sacrifice so that the father could rise in the gang hierarchy. Since this report was extremely inflammatory, the investigator probed and was convinced that human sacrifice was what was meant (“he was being asked by the gang to offer his own blood (family member) to either move out of the gang or to move up in the gang”). In this case, the mother was advised by her mother-in-law to flee before her son killed her grandson, and she immediately fled to the United States with her toddler and without any financial resources.

Responding to the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire, women and children participants reported being exposed to shootings, losing family members to the gangs, witnessing family being killed in front of them, and witnessing bodies in the streets. Those who did not comply with gang requests or who were in rival gangs were murdered. Children were often confronted with the impossible choice to join the gangs, participate in drug trafficking, or die. The women felt the only way to protect their children was to leave their countries of origin.

Dangers on the journey

The journey to the United States was traumatic for many of the women and children interviewed for this study. Participants described witnessing murders and rapes as they took the trains northward. One woman described witnessing the rape of two women and one 12-year-old girl, who subsequently disappeared. Participants reported having to pay repeated fees to be allowed to stay on the train, bus, or trailer. A participant witnessed an elderly man being thrown off the top of a train. Others described wandering in the desert with their guides without food and water, certain that they were going to die. One woman reported drinking dirty water from a puddle and then suffering from diarrhea throughout her journey.

The cost of travel to United States from sending country ranged from nothing to USD$12,000, including the costs of buses, trains, coyotes, being held for ransom, temporary stays at halfway homes, and unexpected “fees.” Participants generally crossed the border with no money left after having been repeatedly extorted along the way.

Stages of detainment: iceboxes and dog kennels

Upon apprehension after crossing the border, participants described being incarcerated by U.S. immigration authorities in a facility that was extremely cold, which they referred to as the hielera (icebox/freezer), and subsequently transferred to cells that were like cages, known as perreras (dog kennels/doghouses), where they slept on the ground. Women reported that their children cried a lot because they were so cold. Families were separated at this initial point, with mothers sometimes not knowing where their children were and fathers sent to different detention centers across the country or deported. These locations are consistent with those described by prominent social work scholar Luis Zayas (Zayas 2014) in his interviews with 10 families detained at Karnes after fleeing their countries of origin. These initial holding cells were often cited as the most difficult and traumatic experiences for participants since arriving in the United States.

The detention center in Karnes City, Texas. Photo: Jeff Pearcy.

Karnes and Dilley

After the freezers and dog kennels, refugees were transferred to the detention centers in Karnes City or Dilley, Texas. There they had access to showers, food, and beds but faced different stressors. Dilley and Karnes are currently run by CCA and GEO Group Inc., two private contractors. Several organizations, such as the CARA Pro Bono Project and the Detention Watch Network, and the attorneys representing many of the women reported that these private prison contractors run the detention centers in a manner that is consistent with a prison setting rather than family or refugee housing. Stays in Dilley ranged from one or two days to several months.

Family separation

ICE separates families as a matter of course and in a way that risks family members losing each other permanently. One of the women interviewed had been separated from her 10-year old son as well as from her husband. The husband, interned on the East Coast somewhere, was desolate at losing his family and tried to commit suicide. The mother and her young daughter were released on the last day of the team’s field trip but are stuck in the shelter waiting for her son to be released. The woman reported experiencing migraines and not being able to sleep or eat since she could not stop thinking about her son. Her two youngest children would hear their mother cry at night and would also start crying, wondering why their brother and father were not with them.

Another woman was separated from her husband, had no idea where he was, and only heard through gossip that he had been deported. She did not know if he had safely arrived back home, causing her significant distress that was reflected in her survey scores. During the interview, the investigator lent her cell phone to the participant to call her daughter in Honduras, and she learned at least that her husband was safe.

Investigators see no reason to separate families like this, especially removing young children from their mothers. The practice piles on additional trauma and creates additional risk for depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. If the human cost of family separation is not sufficient to warrant ending the practice, the government should consider taxpayer burden when spending tax dollars on foster care subsidies that would be unnecessary if families were kept intact.