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Encerrada como un animal: Women describe their experience in U.S. detention centers

Friday, July 5th, 2019

Silhouette of hungry refugee mother and childThe following information is from a research report by Casa de Esperanza’s National Latin@ Network and St. Edward’s University. Download the entire report for free here: http://nationallatinonetwork.org/images/Family_Detention_Report_English.pdf 

Detention: Encerrada como un animal*

Despite the manner in which women crossed the border into the U.S., whether presenting themselves at a port of entry as an asylum-seeker or being apprehended while crossing without authorization, many are detained for several days in detention settings known as hieleras and perreras. These are short-term immigrant detention facilities operated by U.S. Customs & Border Protection. Hieleras, “freezers” or “ice boxes,” received this moniker due to their consistently low temperatures. In addition to suffering in the cold temperatures, survivors describe de-humanizing conditions, having their belongings taken from them, and sleeping on cement floors, with little to keep themselves or their children warm. Julia described what it felt like to be put in a hielera: “desde que uno ingresa a la hielera uno se siente como animal, como que no valiera nada.”1

After spending time in the hielera, many women were transferred to another form of temporary detention, a perrera, referring to these facilities’ resemblance to dog kennels. In the perrera, women were separated from older children and/or spouses. Often without being provided information about what was happening to them and why, women were transferred from the perrera to a longer-term detention facility. Survivors and service providers alike consistently describe these facilities as prisons.

“They took us to Karnes, where they told us it was like a shelter for families, a home. When we arrived at Karnes, we saw that there was a wall with barbed wire, and razor wire on top. I said to my daughter, ‘a shelter this secure, mija?’ And at the entrance, there were nice glass doors that said, ‘Karnes Residential,’ but that was just a façade, because when you enter you realize that it is not a residential facility. It is a jail, a jail for families, families like mine that don’t have anyone in the United States, who come just to stay alive and because they want to see their children alive and well, for things to be better in the future.” -Honduran Survivor

“Looking at their experience coming here, they leave pretty much everything behind. The few things that they take with them, when border patrol picks them up, and they’re put in detention, they’re taken away. They have nothing. At every contact they have coming into this country, things are taken from them. Their freedom, everything.” -Service Provider

For periods of time that range from several weeks to several months in the facility, basic needs are not adequately met. Survivors describe inadequate food choices and difficulty sleeping due to the impact of the persecution they fled, fears of being returned to violence or abuse, and nightly room checks that disrupt sleeping patterns. Survivors and service providers also describe significant and frequent healthcare and mental healthcare needs, resulting from previous violence, trauma, and/or untreated illnesses, from experiences during the journey to the U.S., and from conditions that arise during detention. Though medical services within detention are available, they remain inadequate. For example, one woman reported that her inhaler was taken from her and, without it, she experienced respiratory distress. Others described having x-rays or other medical tests performed but never receiving the results
of such tests.

Research participants also describe a persistent state of confusion and lack of information about what is happening, why it is happening, and what might happen next. Comprehensive information about detention and immigration procedures are generally not provided by government officials or detention staff in linguistically appropriate formats,
particularly for indigenous language speakers. In some facilities, outside legal services representatives are regularly allowed in to provide brief know-your-rights workshops and legal consultations, though capacity is limited and these services do not reach all detainees. In addition to general confusion and lacking complete information and understanding about the processes and systems surrounding them, survivors and service providers report that immigration policies and rules are ever-shifting. María noted, “migración nos dice una cosa, luego al día siguiente nos dice otra cosa.”2

An immigration attorney confirmed: “We used to always tell people [asylum-seekers] this, and now we can’t anymore. Things are no longer certain. We used to think we had it rough, but we actually existed in a world with some certainties. Now there are no certainties. We simply just try to advise people the best we can, but we’re cautious. There aren’t any absolutes anymore.”

An immigration attorney stated, “policies change every other day. Will you be released if you pass your credible fear interview? Or will ICE set a bond? Or will ICE refuse to set any bond at all? Will you have to go before an immigration judge to see whether you’re going to be able to get out?” This atmosphere keeps those detained, in addition to the professionals providing services to them, in a relentless cycle of distraction, instability, and risk.
While research participants consistently raised the themes described above, it should be noted that some reported neutral or positive experiences in detention. Often, these reports are made in comparison to what women experienced before being detained, in other words the violence or persecution they fled in their home countries or
experienced during migration. For example, a Honduran survivor stated, “En parte sí me sentí segura y protegida por lo que yo había vivido atrás.”3

A mental health service provider explained, “for some people, detention means safety from whoever was persecuting them, three meals a day, and a bed to sleep in. For others, detention centers are re-traumatizing, a new trauma to deal with.”

*This translates as “locked up like an animal, “ a verbatim description of detention from a research participant.

1“Once you enter the ice box, you feel like an animal, as if you aren’t worth anything.”

2“Immigration tells us one thing, then later the next day they tell us something different.”

3“In part, yes, I felt safe and protected, given what I had lived previously.”

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