The United States’ Well-Kept Secret: Detaining Vulnerable Women and Children

The United States’ Well-Kept Secret: Detaining Vulnerable Women and Children

By: Samantha Poon

“no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.”

Excerpt from “Home” by Warsan Shire

A rural Texan town with a population of 4,000 people sits a few hours from the United States-Mexico border. This small town houses a privately-owned family detention center. At this center, women and children are imprisoned for fleeing their homes that are the mouths of sharks; these are women and children who ran for the border and saw other families running as well.

In 2014, the Obama administration waged a war on Central American mothers and children fleeing from the Northern Triangle—namely, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In their home countries, gang members accost, threaten, and harass young women to be their “girlfriends.” Drug cartels recruit boys, as young as ten years old, at schools to sell drugs. Local gangs routinely extort land and business owners for a “war tax.” The police watch silently as these unspeakable horrors occur.

To escape these terrifying scenarios, women and children journey to the United States. Along the way, some will encounter human traffickers, others will face rapists; most will have to brave extreme weather conditions as they cross miles of desert without proper access to nourishment and water. Those who are able to make it to the border will present themselves at a United States port of entry. They will be rudely questioned about why they want to enter the United States. If they fail to express a fear to return to their country, the women and children will be turned away and forced to make the dangerous trip back home. The fortunate who are able to express fear are rounded up and allowed to continue their journey into the United States, wading through legal and structural hoops and barriers.

After immigration processing, the women and children are transferred to the privately-owned family detention centers. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts with private prison companies to build prison facilities for these women and children. These private prisons profit from detaining traumatized mothers and frightened children. Women and children are given ironically colorful uniforms and guards escort them around all day. They are treated as prisoners in the so-called land of the free. Their only crime? Attempting to escape the horrendous conditions in their home countries.

At the family detention centers, the women and children will go through an initial asylum screening interview, known as the credible fear interview. During this interview with an asylum officer, the women and children must divulge some of the worst experiences in their lives. Raw stories of women experiencing abuse by partners, mothers watching their daughters raped by gang members, children witnessing beloved family members gunned down by mercenaries, studious young boys forced to drop out of school by active gang recruiters. The mothers are re-traumatized in telling their stories to a stranger, who communicates in a language they do not understand. If the asylum officer decides that the mother and child have expressed a credible fear of returning to their country, the asylum office will allow them to pursue their asylum application in immigration court. If the asylum officer decides that the mother and child have not expressed adequate fear or suffered sufficient persecution, the mother and child will be deported.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The Statute of Liberty has long stood as a welcoming symbol for immigrants. However, at its core, family detention centers contradict the very notions of American freedom and liberty. Instead of helping women to breathe free, we suffocate them, shove them into prisons, and force them to relive their trauma. We treat them as inmates. When they are unable to navigate the complicated legal standards of an asylum, we expel the tired, poor, and huddled mass.

In a new Trump administration of immigration priorities, only time will tell whether family detention centers will grow or dissipate. The rate of private prison contracts is increasing in this administration, and immigration has become a priority. However, these women and children in Dilley are not a security threat, contrary to the current anti-immigrant rhetoric. The fight to end family detention persists, and lawyers play a crucial role in this battle.


This article is written by Samantha Poon as part of the Journal of Law & Policy’s Student Summer Series, which highlights work that Wake Forest Law students performed over their summer. Samantha Poon worked with women and children who were detained at these detention facilities. 

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