Summary of Observations

A family recently released from immigration detention. Photo: Jeff Pearcy.


  • Child’s reference to sending country: “We were living in a horror movie”
  • Angry and unfocused
  • “Yelled a lot” (and to get child’s attention mothers had to “yell a lot”)
  • Inadequate stimulation, uninteresting toys in playroom, and playground equipment inaccessible because of the extreme summer heat
  • Repeated questions about missing family members, trouble eating and sleeping, worries about family members
  • Interrupted schooling: removed from school because of safety concerns in sending country no advancement in Dilley, because participants reported classes started over at the beginning every time a new child joined
  • Often released sick from the Dilley detention center and embark on bus trips to resettlement areas ill and without food, blankets, medicine, or palliative care

Sending country (Harvard Trauma Questionnaire Part One)

  • Sexual violence, including rape and other types of sexual assault or sexual humiliation
  • Domestic violence, including sexual violence and beatings
  • Community violence, robbery, extortion, and kidnapping
  • Violent gangs, especially the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara 18 threats and extortion, threats to children, police collusion with gangs, gang stalking young daughters particularly vulnerable
  • Drug traffickers and trafficking
  • Witness killing or serious injury due to violence of family member
  • Lack of food, water, and shelter
  • Friends and family forced to denounce them, putting them and their families at risk
  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes
  • Drug traffickers and trafficking

Travel to the United States

  • High cost and extortion, “safety” fees or “taxes” along various sections of train rides
  • Kidnapping and family members held for ransom
  • Victims or witnesses of rape, murder, and other violent crimes, including sexual crimes against children
  • Exposure to extreme heat, rain, and other extreme weather conditions
  • Long-distance walks without food, water, or shelter
  • Lack of sanitary facilities or bathing

Detention in the United States

  • Reports of sexual assault, particularly in Karnes and in the literature (Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services and Women’s Refugee Commission 2014)
  • Separation of families in detention, holding children separate from parents and removing fathers from families
  • Constant fear of deportation and being murdered if sent back to home countries
  • Threats of deportation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Corrections
  • Corporation of America (CCA)/GEO Group (GEO) staff used as form of coercion
  • Centers deliberately kept very cold in temperature, children crying from fear and discomfort, mothers anxious that children will get sick, children sick from the cold
  • Taunting, abuse, and intimidating looks from ICE or CCA/GEO staff reports that refugees were told they would never be released and would die in detention
  • Mothers told to “control their children” if children were active
  • Mothers threatened with loss of their children if they didn’t comply
  • Sense of surveillance of researchers while inside the center
  • Emotionally closed participants, not communicative or forthcoming
  • Uncertainty regarding length of detention and lengthy detentions even after cleared for release

Poor health in detention

  • High levels of anxiety and depression
  • Significant weight loss among children meals of beans and rice, with no meat centipedes in food missed meals if children not hungry at set mealtimes
  • Unattended late-term miscarriage in which the neonate “fell out” onto the floor
  • Child illness allowed to develop into pneumonia
  • Fully preventable deaths from hyperglycemia (Gilna 2013 Mehta 2015)
  • Diabetes, untreated or inappropriately medicated
  • Poor or excessive sleeping
  • Nightmares
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Flat affect, emotional numbness
  • Long waits to be seen by medical professionals
  • Medical advice of “drink more water” for ailments from pneumonia to fever to broken bones
  • Children released with fever, coughs, sore throats, and stomach ailments without medications

Mental health professionals in detention

  • Lack of contact for appointments after refugees signed up for care during their detention
  • For adults, only group therapy
  • Prayer groups for peer support for women, but not all participated in these groups
  • Threats from mental health professionals that mothers would lose of their children
  • Taunts from mental health professionals (according to attorneys), who are quoted as saying: “Why are you so sad? You are just going to be deported anyway,” and “If you stay this depressed they are going to take away your kids.” [4]

Release conditions

  • Clothing (blue, purple, or pink colored t-shirts) that easily identifies women as detainees at the bus station
  • Lack of geographic knowledge
  • Language barriers, although Spanish speakers fare better than indigenous speakers bus vouchers in English, which was a problem for refugees
  • No opportunity to bathe after release, no clean clothes
  • No blankets for bus ride or provisions for inclement weather or air conditioning
  • Release at ICE’s discretion, no way of predicting release time
  • No way of contacting family members (no coins or cell phones to make calls)
  • Little or no money to purchase food, water, or necessities such as diapers, medicine, and sanitary napkins during three to four days of travel by bus
  • High bonds that cause additional stress
  • Ankle shackles that cause shame and discomfort


  • Issues common to all immigrants such as adapting to new environments not knowing a new language, new country, new customs different foods
  • Reports of seeing a man with a rope or lasso up on top of one of the trains who served as a guide or protector for individual refugees (unclear if the man was part of a gang or cartel, a local individual, or a hallucination)
  • Reoccurring theme of faith throughout the interviews

[4] Discourse at CARA Pro Bono attorney debriefing meeting, Wednesday, July 22, Dilley, Texas.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.