How Immigration Detention Centers Retraumatize Women And Children Fleeing From Violence

CREDIT: Jeff Pearcy for Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

A released Central American woman and children wait at a Greyhound bus station in Texas.

Yanira, a 41-year-old Guatemalan national, left her home country with her three children because their lives were in danger from gang violence. She and her family arrived in Texas in February — but they were soon put in an immigration detention center for two months. Yanira now lives in San Antonio, Texas as she awaits her court date for her asylum case. But she said that her experience in a family detention center left her scarred.

“It’s hard to talk about it because … it was horrible to be in that detention center,” Yanira told ThinkProgress through a Spanish-language translator. “It was hard at the beginning with the food that they were giving us. But then with the medical, you have to wait two to three hours just to get a pill when you got sick. I have asthma so I was always coughing a lot and I would go to medical care, but they wouldn’t take care of me.”

Yanira’s experience mirrors what many Central American mothers and children go through as they attempt to make the journey to this country, according to a new report from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), a human rights organization, released this week. The report found that people like Yanira are at high risk of re-experiencing past traumas when they are held in miserable conditions in U.S. immigration detention facilities.

In interviews with 26 people released from family detention in July 2015, the UUSC researchers concluded that more than half of all respondents reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, while nearly half of respondents reported clinical significant symptoms for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some even exhibited signs of anxiety during the interviews with researchers.

Many women told researchers that they left their countries because of “extreme violence” and that they often encountered extortion on their journey, and were threatened with the death of a loved one if they could not repay the money. Some described “witnessing murder and rape as they took the trains northward,” with one seeing an elderly man being thrown off the train.

A young Central American child receives a kiss from her mother.

A young Central American child receives a kiss from her mother.


“They get to the border… then they’re totally grateful to see immigration officials at the end of their journey, but then they get put in these cages,” Dr. Kathleen O’Connor, lead researcher on the report and an associate professor at the University of Texas El Paso, explained to ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “They call them the dog kennels and some are put in these freezing cold places, supposedly to keep the viruses down.”

Respondents in O’Connor’s report said that they faced the most difficult and traumatic experiences in the initial holding areas after border patrol agents took them in. That’s where children are separated from parents. The report indicated that the separation of family members caused the potential for trauma and mental anguish for parents who previously experienced the real possibility of kidnapping and murder of their children in their countries of origin. Confinement in a detention facility also brought back memories for individuals who may have been trapped or in hiding from gang members. And some mothers reported that their children would be taken away if they didn’t comply with ICE rules and demands or if they complained about mental health issues.

The waves of anxiety don’t stop for some Central American women even after they’re released and awaiting their court decisions. Yanira said that she spent the weekend reliving her time in detention.

But other issues can exacerbate the stress that Central American migrants feel after they’re released. O’Connor reported that newly released mothers and children are often inadequately equipped with necessities. During her interview with mothers, O’Connor recalled making several trips to a local Walgreens pharmacy store to get diapers and medicine for the children. She also went to the ATM to withdraw cash for mothers who were given a bus tickets and about $50 for their trip.

“Sanitary napkins, can you believe it, they ration the sanitary napkins,” O’Connor recalled. “That was so awful. This one girl had bled through her clothes so I had to go to Walgreens. These little necessities of life that you need and they’re just not given them or access or avenue to get them… It’s appalling how they were treated.”

O’Connor also criticized private prison operators for making the detention of Central American women into an “economic incentive.” The government has paid roughly $2 billion annually for private prison operators like The GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America to keep immigrants in detention.

“They are not refugees or immigrants — they are commodities,” O’Connor said. “The government has a contract to fill a certain number of beds, so they’ve been ordered to release people, but they’re filling them back up with new people… Deterrence is not working. It’s an inhumane policy. People wouldn’t come here if there wasn’t awful things happening in their sending countries.”

The report is part of a growing number of blistering attacks lobbed at the Obama administration’s handling of Central American migrant women and children once they surrender to border patrol agents at the southern U.S.-Mexico border.

Last year, the United States experienced a sharp increase of people fleeing violence and poverty from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In response, the Obama administration took on a widespread, harsh tactic of keeping women and children in detention centers across Texas and Pennsylvania. Numerous advocacy groups and lawyers have condemned the conditions in these facilities, leveling accusations of inadequate medical care, poor legal representation, and bad treatment of detainees by immigration officers.

In July, a federal district court judge ruled that mothers and children should be released from detention centers that aren’t licensed to house children and gave the administration a hard compliance deadline of October 23. The Obama administration has since indicated that it would appeal the ruling to close family detention centers, maintaining that detaining families is a matter of border security.

Another report released on Wednesday by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and Detention Watch Network (DWN) found that the ICE’s inspection process often gave passing ratings for detention facilities, even in facilities with publicly reported human rights abuses.

When asked which experience she felt was more traumatic — her experience on the journey or her time in detention — Yanira said, “It was definitely the detention.”