The Misery of Family Detention: One Woman’s Story

"Being in detention doesn't just affect the person in detention; it affects the whole family. And when one family member is detained, that too is family separation."

[Photo: A mother and her child sit near two jugs of water]
The process of othering, exploiting, criminalizing, and discarding immigrants does not happen overnight. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Shortly before Angelina (a pseudonym) and her 6-year-old son were detained for two months at a family detention camp in rural New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary told a Senate committee that for adults who migrate alone from Central America, there would be no hearing before an immigration judge. Rather, their removal would be expedited. For Central American parents like Angelina who migrated to the United States with their children, the message was “simple,” the DHS secretary said. “We will send you back.” 

Though this sounds like a scene out of the current administration, it was Obama-era DHS secretary Jeh Johnson who sought to flout due process. The Obama administration’s response to the influx of Central American migrants in 2014 was to send them back to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. In order to do so, it set up detention camps to process orders for deportation quickly, as the New York Times reported. These camps are not unlike the ones the administration is reportedly preparing to construct.

As the current administration moves to expand family detention in order to deal with a crisis of its own making, Rewire.News spoke with Angelina about her experience to shed light on what it can mean to hold parents and their children in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. Angelina told Rewire.News, through an interpreter, that she wants people to understand how desperate it feels to be detained without access to an attorney and with no knowledge or understanding of where your case stands or how long you will be detained. Indeed, many sign their own deportation orders because of the “crushing depression” of being detained for so long. She also wants people to expand the ways they talk about family detention and family separation, centering those most affected.  

“[E]ven when one person, like my husband, is detained, it’s like the whole family is there. Our heart is there. We experience the stress and fear of not knowing,” Angelina said. “Being in detention doesn’t just affect the person in detention; it affects the whole family. And when one family member is detained, that too is family separation.”

Angelina’s Story

In the fall of 2014, Angelina and her young son spent two months at the Artesia “refugee camp” in New Mexico, where she says they experienced “inhumane conditions.” Angelina told Rewire.News that when she arrived at Artesia, the facility was holding “at least a thousand families” and “more were arriving every day.” Some had already been detained for as long as six months, she said.

The New York Times reported in 2015 that officials deported more than 200 refugees to Central America in the first five weeks that the Artesia facility was open. Advocates have anticipated Trump’s “tent cities” will largely function the same way: They are deportation processing centers.

“When we arrived, they put us in quarantine. They said we had lice or that we carried diseases with us. The workers there would use gloves and masks to come close to us or move us. We were kept in very cold rooms; we called them hieleras. I spent five days in the hielera and during those five days, I wasn’t allowed to shower or change my clothes. Psychologically speaking, it was very traumatizing,” Angelina said.

Once in general population, Angelina quickly learned that even basic necessities like food would not be met by the detention camp. Families looked forward to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday because these were essentially the only days when the facility provided food the detained children could actually eat: sandwiches, chips, and cookies. On the other days, the food was “raw” or “too spicy” for the children, meaning they barely ate four days out of the week.

There were also allegations of sexual abuse. Angelina said she did not personally witness or experience sexual abuse at Artesia, but she knew others had and they were afraid to speak out due to fear of retaliation from immigration officials. 

For ten days Rewire.News attempted to confirm with ICE’s office of public affairs the specifics of Artesia’s quarantine process and food schedule but was told that, because “this was years ago” and “no one on the press team now covered this issue then,” that it would “take some time.” The agency has yet to respond.

Dr. Satsuki Ina, a psychotherapist for over 40 years with firsthand experience in family detention, told Rewire.News, “What is really at the core of the immigration system in the United States is this insipid, deeply entrenched level of racism that sees immigrants of color as a threat to white Anglo Saxon Protestant families, which then leads to direct attacks on immigrant families.”

For years now, there has been an uptick in the number of indigenous people migrating to the United States from Central America. When Angelina was detained at Artesia with her son, she witnessed an indigenous woman from Guatemala forced into a shower by guards at the facility.

“She had not showered for a few days because in her country, she was taught that when you menstruate, you don’t get wet, not even your hand, so you don’t shower and you should not be seen by men. It’s a cultural thing where she was from, but the guards didn’t care,” Angelina said.

The Guatemalan woman did not speak English or Spanish, and could not communicate with the guards to explain why she was choosing not to shower. When another woman at the facility explained to the guards for her, the guards laughed, Angelina said.

“Artesia was a military base, so all the showers were open and everyone could see each other. They put her in the shower, saying she was silly and unclean,” Angelina recalled. “They laughed at her; they laughed at her private parts. They did not respect women, and they did not respect different cultures. This was a human rights abuse.”

These violations are not only reserved for adults in family detention facilities. As other detained people have reported, when a person experiences an illness in detention, no matter how serious, they are often told by officials to simply drink water. Angelina told Rewire.News that when children at Artesia became ill, officials told their parents to just give them more water. One woman was so alarmed by the failure of the facility to provide care for her severely ill son that she chose to “self-deport” in order to get him care in El Salvador.

Angelina, who is no longer in detention, had used social media to stay in touch with more than 2,000 women who have been detained in the United States, before deleting her account for safety reasons. It was only after Angelina’s own release from detention that she reconnected with the woman who self-deported.

“I learned that when she went back to El Salvador, she took her son to the hospital and he died. In the autopsy, she learned that he didn’t receive adequate medical attention [in detention] and by the time he got to the hospital in El Salvador, he was in critical condition. He had asthma and pneumonia and by the time he was at the hospital, it was too late,” Angelina said. “All of the women I stay in touch with tell me heartbreaking stories. It is clear to me that their children are suffering the consequences of detention.” 

This is also true of Angelina’s own son, who is now 10 years old. After their release from Artesia, the mother and son sought counseling together to “process what happened” to them in detention. Angelina said that in the years since, her son didn’t talk much about his experience in detention—until his father was recently detained under the Trump administration.

Angelina’s husband was detained while leaving work. He had no criminal record but was detained for two months, she said. 

Angelina told Rewire.News that the county in Virginia where her husband was arrested participates in the 287(g) program, which is an agreement between a local law enforcement agency and ICE, effectively deputizing law enforcement officers to act as immigration agents. This means that any interaction an undocumented immigrant has with a police officer can lead to them being funneled into the detention system and possibly getting deported.

This process of othering, exploiting, criminalizing, and discarding immigrants does not happen overnight. Ina told Rewire.News that the groundwork for things like Japanese internment or the mass incarceration of Central American asylum-seeking families is laid well before the actual internment occurs, and it takes the form of rhetoric.

Ina, who was born in a Japanese American internment camp where she was detained with her parents, said she sees the practice of detaining undocumented immigrants in family detention as part of a larger American story, one that frames immigrants as “the other” or a threat. This approach, Ina said, is an attempt to justify the dehumanization and criminalization of immigrant communities.

“We [Japanese Americans] too were considered a public threat, an economic threat, just a threat, and to the American public, that justified our incarceration,” Ina said. “We must pay attention to the language being used to frame these narratives, how damaging it is, and how there is a historical framework for using this rhetoric to put people in prison camps. Today, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t see that what happened to Japanese Americans was wrong, it’s written about in school textbooks as wrong. The same people justifying Trump’s policies today will later find themselves on the wrong side of American history.”

Angelina’s husband has since been released, but at the time of our interview he was still detained and her primary concern was how these experiences were affecting her 10-year-old. “My son asks me, ‘Is papa being treated the way we were in detention?’ He’s very scared and worried about how his dad is being treated. He cries at night and asks me if his dad is going to be deported. He is very sensitive to this situation.”

“I think it’s bringing up a lot for him,” Angelina added. “He’s reliving his experience in detention through his dad.”

As Angelina noted, there are policies in place that keep families separated from their detained love ones: Detention centers generally require a government-issued ID to visit the facility. For undocumented family members who have loved ones in detention, this means there can be no visits.

“It’s cruel. It’s family separation. You don’t even have a chance to say goodbye if you know they will be deported,” she said. “More than anything, I want people to know how psychologically damaging this is to all of us, but especially to children. This whole system harms us. It causes us to suffer. Family detention centers should not exist.”