A jail for babies: Absurdity and abuse at the American border

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DILLEY, TEXAS - The government’s approach at the edge of our nation, our southern border, mirrors the way we think of the edge of our own consciousness: a dark place to hide our most absurd and troublesome secrets.

Since December 2014, the government has paid millions of dollars to a private prison corporation to operate what may be the world’s largest internment camp for asylum-seeking women and children. Nearly 2,000 mothers and their young kids, fleeing persecution and seeking protection under international law, are currently caged and abused by our government in southern Texas.

With a federal court ruling expected to denounce this practice of so-called “family detention” finally on its way, the absurdity of this policy is emerging from the edges. And it requires our reckoning.


Why is the government incarcerating young mothers and their children? Why is a private prison company profiting off of their confinement? And why hasn’t anyone been held accountable?

The euphemistically named “South Texas Residential Family Center” (“STRFC”) is a 55-acre compound of dusty trailers enclosed by 15-foot wire fences and surrounded by miles of empty space in Dilley, Texas. Inside these trailers are nearly 2,000 young mothers (nearly all are under the age of 30) and children (average age, 9) who are under constant surveillance by corporate prison guards. Despite the fact that many of these women and children were forcibly separated from their husbands, fathers, siblings and grandparents by the U.S. government when they arrived at the border and requested asylum, the Department of Homeland Security considers each unit of mother and children to be a “family.”

The government pays the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) nearly $300 per night to confine each mother and child in Dilley. “Families” are held for months while the government slowly adjudicates their applications for asylum. This taxpayer money is used to pad CCA’s bottomline, bolstering its more than $1.6 billion in revenue in 2014. Yet it is certainly not used towards providing requisite care and attention to the detained women and children.

In early July, more than 250 children were woken up between 4 and 6 a.m. and injected with five or six shots against their will. The government later announced that the children, as young as two years old, had mistakenly been given adult dosages of vaccines, resulting in temporary immobility, vomiting, fevers, and pneumonia. These symptoms could have been treated if wait times to see a doctor were not regularly upwards of four, five or six hours – most of the wait outside, under the Texan sun. But even if a child saw a doctor, they might have been denied care, as anything from broken fingers to cancerous growths are treated by a prescription of “drink more water.”


Every aspect of the design and implementation of this internment camp is meant to deny these women agency over their lives. Mothers are denied the ability to care for their children and are instead forced to rely on the services of a government whose primary goal is to control them. Mothers seeking psychological assistance after escaping persecution report being threatened that their children will be taken away if they do not improve their attitudes. Women who try to take control of the legal process and advocate for themselves are met with silence by immigration officials who do not provide them with answers about their case. The government’s ideology is clear in every interaction with these women – from splitting up their family, to neglecting their health and children, to denying them information: that humanity, morality and justice have no place at the border.

The complete madness and endless contradictions of a policy that breaks up families and cages those who are escaping violence from the most dangerous places on earth are staggering in their scale and pervasiveness.


First, government has decided to completely ignore and violate established law. In 1997, the government agreed not to detain children after facing pressure from a lawsuit by an immigrant rights group. But they have not complied.

Second, the stated rationale for the existence of a jail for babies relies on a completely false premise. Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, justified the opening of the STRFC, stating, “Frankly, we want to send a message that our border is not open to illegal migration, and if you come here, you should not expect to simply be released.”


Johnson’s statement categorizes these women and children within the tired narrative of “economic migrants illegally entering the U.S. to seek a better life.” Yet, the women and children who are detained are asylum-seekers legally asserting their internationally recognized right to protection. The government knows that this is the reality; nearly 9 out of 10 women held in Dilley, when finally given the opportunity to explain their story, prove that they have a strong and viable asylum claim. In choosing to detain these women anyway, the government has opted to employ an expensive and abusive program of control rather than allowing them to join their family in the United States and continue through the asylum process in freedom – the process that almost all other asylum-seekers in the U.S. are entitled to.

So, why is the government ignoring established legal codes and willfully ignoring empirical realities? And how are advocates responding?


With immigration policy, the Department of Homeland Security has immense power to act with impunity. Courts have limited authority to restrict the implementation of immigration action. And non-citizens have no legal right to representation, even though these are truly life or death matters. The border is designed to shirk accountability, invoke silence and permit abuse.

There is only one solution: end the internment of asylum-seeking women and children.


To hold the government responsible volunteer lawyers have been traveling to south Texas and a predecessor jail in New Mexico since they opened a year ago. Every week, a dozen lawyers from all over the country fight their way into the facility to represent the women and children here. Five non-profit legal services groups, including my own, Immigrant Justice Corps, are coordinating pro bono representation. It is unsurprising why the government rejects the rights of these women to have a lawyer: access to counsel makes a fourteen-fold difference in the ultimate outcome of a case, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC data.

This is an absurd difference in outcome. And until we honestly investigate our borders and our edges they will remain dangerous places where absurdity reigns supreme – and people will continue to suffer in secret.


Aseem Mehta is an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow in Dilley, Texas where he is working with the CARA Pro Bono Project to provide legal representation to detained women and children.

Aseem Mehta is an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow in Dilley, Texas where he is working with the CARA Pro Bono Project to provide legal representation to detained women and children.

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