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From Home to Hieleras

October 27, 2016
By: Anna Peare

Women and Children Escaping Violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala

Cristina1 is a 22-year-old mother and a part-time university student from Honduras. In late April 2016, Cristina was walking from her class at her local university to the bus stop. She noticed a truck with an El Salvadoran license plate parked outside the university, but thought little of it. When the truck began to follow her to the bus stop, Cristina panicked. Two masked men jumped out of the truck, grabbed her, and pulled her into the bed of the vehicle. She was then sexually assaulted and gang-raped by the masked assailants. Before leaving Cristina on the side of the road, the masked men threatened to kill both her and her 2-year-old daughter if she tried to report the assault to the police. Fearing for her and her daughter’s lives, Cristina fled Honduras for the United States within the week.

Cristina’s story is not unusual. Her story illustrates a harsh reality of deep-rooted drug-related crime, heightened gang-activity, and gendered violence that have damaged countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala for decades. Each year, hundreds of women and their children, with stories similar to that of Cristina, flee the violence and poverty in their home countries in Central America in search of safety in the United States, only to find detention at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Las Hieleras: Abuse in Border Patrol Detention Facilities

Upon apprehension at the border, these women and children are met with inhumane and unjust detainment practices. Once in the custody of US Customs and Border Patrol, women and children are transferred to holding cells commonly referred to as “las hieleras,” or iceboxes. Many women have reported that “las hieleras” are small, cement rooms packed with women and children, devoid of beds and blankets. The rooms are kept at incredibly cold temperatures and women and children are not permitted to bathe and are often denied medication if they become ill. If the migrants can endure four to five days in these holding centers, they are then moved to family detention centers where they reside during the immigration process.

South Texas Family Residential Center: Largest Immigrant Family Detention Center

Residents walk past campus map at the STFRC in Dilley, Texas. Credit: Charles Reed, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Residents walk past campus map at the STFRC in Dilley, Texas. Credit: Charles Reed, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

In December 2014, the United States federal government opened the largest immigrant family detention center in Dilley, Texas, approximately 80 minutes southwest of San Antonio. Formerly an oil field worker’s camp, the South Texas Family Residential Center sits on a 50-acre compound featuring 80 residential rooms connected by dirt roads. Housing and facility expansion in 2014 and 2015 has pushed the capacity of the Center to 2,400 migrants. It is owned by Corrections Corporations of America (CCA), the leading provider of private prisons and detention centers in the United States.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days this past April volunteering with the CARA Pro Bono Project, which has been coordinating and providing pro bono representation for detained children and women, at the Dilley Center, colloquially known as “baby jail.” During my time there, I led intake “charlas” or chats on the asylum process in the United States and what services CARA provides. In my everyday chores, I found myself with close access to women and children, as I served as a translator between asylees and the legal team. I also assisted women in filling out asylum paperwork and in preparing them for credible fear of persecution or torture interviews. These interviews, conducted by Asylum Officers, allow a person who is subject to expedited removal to express fear of persecution, torture, or a general fear of returning to their home country to obtain asylum.

While aiding with the credible fear interview preparations, I heard the harrowing stories of women, like Cristina, who are no older than me. They shared their experiences of living with fear in their home countries, on the perilous journey north and while living in the South Texas Family Residential Center.

One of the women I interviewed, Esperanza, traveled from El Salvador to the United States to escape both MS-13 and M18, two powerful gangs that operate in El Salvador. Both gangs attempted to recruit her 12-year-old son, Pedro, and extorted Esperanza for money.

Fearing the worst, Esperanza fled with her son and her son’s friend, another 12-year old. The three of them were detained at the Mexican border, yet only Esperanza and Pedro were able to cross into the United States. While it is common for non-related migrants to travel together, more times than not, non-blood related migrants are separated and placed in different holding centers.

Esperanza’s son’s friend was deported back to El Salvador, where he was murdered by MS-13 one week later. Esperanza applied for asylum with the help of the CARA Project, yet was denied three times while she was at the South Texas Family Residential Center.

Whereas most migrants spend anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks at the center, Esperanza and Pedro spent eight weeks living in the “baby jail.” While the center provides medical services for all and basic education for children, the quality of medical and educational services are only exposed to the CARA staff by the personal testimonies of the migrants.

Family Detention Centers: PTSD and Mental Health Impacts on Children and Families

Many migrants fleeing Central America are prone to suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety, among other mental health issues. According to Mr. Levinson, a Program Assistant for the CARA project, detaining women and children, especially after their traumatic past experiences, is incredibly detrimental to their mental health.

For children, the detriment to their mental health is illustrated by irritability and getting into fights with other children. It is also highlighted by social anxiety and fears of abandonment. For mothers, the impact is visible through their frustration at the lack of control they have at organizing their lives and parenting their children, and the fear of being deported.

As Mr. Levinson described, “When you have the control over the regimen of your life completely taken away from you, and when you have a company (CCA) that describes how you have to live, driven by profit, so reducing the costs by the food they eat, quality of food they eat, quality of medical attention that they get, the quality of the living quarters, of education…”, these dictations, from an outside agency can have both immediate and long-term negative implications for women and their mental health.

Esperanza was one of the many women to show signs of PTSD upon arriving at Dilley. Immediately after she arrived, she was scheduled to see a mental health professional employed by CCA. Esperanza saw the mental health professional once and then refused to attend another session. According to Esperanza, the mental health professional solely worked to prepare her for deportation back to El Salvador instead of treating her for the worsening PTSD. In doing so, her PTSD worsened.   

Detention facilities like the one in Dilley cause detriment to women, and children’s mental health. Simply put, they are neither humane nor fit to support these vulnerable populations past their traumatic histories to new beginnings.

A Voice for Women and Children and a Need for Humane Alternatives

With the help of the CARA Project, and lawyers at the state and federal level, on May 6, 2016 Esperanza received good news. She and her son would be permitted to leave Dilley and continue on in their asylum process outside of the detention facility. When I left Dilley on May 8, 2016, Esperanza was finalizing her travel plans to reunite with her sister. The next day, Esperanza and her son left the center to start their new life in New York City.

Despite pressure from NGOs and activists from around the country over the past few years the Obama administration continues to use family detention centers to house vulnerable women and children fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution. While November elections are right around the corner, the issue of family detention, and a lack of initiative in finding a humane alternative, is slipping under the immigration radar of presidential candidates. Central American families, like Esperanza’s and Cristina’s, continue to reside in the unjust living conditions that are family residential centers.

It’s time to give a voice to women and children living in family detention centers in the United States. Their stories are nothing but powerful, and shine a new light on human rights issues happening in not-so-far-away countries. It’s also time to put an end to privately-owned family detention centers, and to find not-for-profit driven, needs-based support services for women and children fleeing violence and seeking asylum. If we cannot do so, it is time to end family detention altogether.  

Anna Peare, an Intern Scholar at the Oakland Institute, is a recent graduate of UC Davis where she studied Community and Regional Development and Spanish. Her senior honors thesis examined the issue of Central American unaccompanied child migration to the United States, specifically focusing on mental health implications on children. She intends to continue her academic career in graduate school and to receive a Masters in Public Health. 


  • [1]All names used in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.