DILLEY, Texas—Interstate 35 becomes increasingly rural and pretty the farther south you get from San Antonio.
Billboards advertising greasy-spoon restaurants and personal injury attorneys gradually cede to fields of windswept grass festooned with pink and yellow wildflowers. The sky becomes bigger and the road narrows. More of the radio dial is occupied by ranchero music and call-in talk shows offering legal advice to Mexican immigrants. Suddenly, there are cows.
Another 30 miles on, past exits to exciting-sounding destinations like Eagle Pass and Bigfoot Yancey, a rust-faded sign announces the turnoff to Dilley, the self-proclaimed watermelon capital of Texas.
These days, Dilley could more accurately be described as the immigrant detention capital of Texas. But the chamber of commerce hasn't gotten around to changing the sign yet.
Downtown Dilley sits at a deserted intersection under a couple of winking yellow traffic lights. Main Street is a forlorn strip of single-story derelict buildings, some of which are decorated sadly with plywood nailed over windows.
The man camps and rough-neck fracker dudes that once lent the town some semblance of liveliness and cash-flow have upped sticks and vanished, leaving behind the air of a post-Gold Rush ghost town. It feels a bit like the set from the Twilight Zone episode Where is Everybody?
With an irrational sense of panic that I was somehow the last man on earth, I pushed into yellow clapboard restaurant called Taqueria Jalisco, where, to my relief, I found several people eating burritos.
The business of incarceration
I came to Dilley to see what people in this small town think about living next door to the largest immigrant detention center in the United States.
The South Texas Family Residential Center is a massive and squat 2,400-bed facility that temporarily holds undocumented women and children, mostly asylum-seekers fleeing violence in northern Central America. The facility was built in response to the 2014 spike in undocumented immigrants arriving on the Texas border, a situation that President Obama declared a "national security threat."
The detention center is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private prison contractor hired by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It occupies a 55-acre plot of land next to a state prison. Combined, the two facilities have about 100 more beds than the town of Dilley itself, population 3,674.
With fracking gone elsewhere, and the watermelon industry shriveling on the vine, the incarceration business has become the most lucrative source of employment in town. If you live in Dilley, chances are pretty good that you or someone you know works for the prison or the neighboring CCA immigrant detention center, which claims to hire 690 people from trained staff to food service and maintenance providers.
"We're proud that of all the little towns around here, they decided to put the detention centers here in Dilley. We were the chosen one, and we take pride on that," says Judge Larry Flores, who was born and raised in town.
"I have nothing but great things to say about them," adds Esther Davalos, who runs Rosa's Hamburger Stand, the best burger joint in Dilley. "It's brought a lot of opportunity to this town and the surrounding area, and [the immigrant detention center] came right at the time the oil boom went down, so it saved our town. Some people have even left their jobs at the prison to go work for the detention center because they pay better."
The CCA staff also have positive things to say about their employer, although they seemed nervous to talk about it.
"It's a shame they won't let you in to see the center; it's a really nice facility," an employee whom we'll call Marge told me. "But don't write anything down until you get back into your car. They're probably watching us right now. If anyone asks what we were talking about, I was just giving you directions."
Hidden in plain sight
The internet is full of cautionary tales about Dilley's immigrant detention center and, more specifically, CCA, the largest and perhaps most controversial private corrections company in the United States.
CCA has been profiting from the U.S.' fondness for incarceration for more than 30 years. It currently manages more than 65 prisons and immigrant detention centers across the country, and has a rich history of turmoil in a number of its locations—including allegations of abuse and lawsuits for detaining children in what the ACLU called "inhumane conditions."
The South Texas Family Residential Center is billed as CCA's flagship operation—a kinder and gentler way of interning women and their children. The website shows an empty playground, a basketball court, and a smiling staff who are eager to help frightened immigrant families.
I wanted to see the place for myself, but had a hard time finding it—even when I knew where to look. I finally got directions from the guard in the neighboring prison tower who pointed me across the field towards what looked like a parking lot in the middle of nowhere.
When I got closer I saw that the facility is a cheerless collection of trailers and what looks like temporary housing inside a fence set back from the highway. It sits at end of an unmarked access road and looks like the kind of hastily constructed field camp that FEMA would build around a UFO crash site in the X-Files. It's the kind of place that could be loaded onto trucks and disappear overnight.
I got as far as the visitation trailer before being turned back by the public information officer who sent me away with instructions to direct all questions to Homeland Security. It was a somewhat expected response, considering I arrived without an appointment. But still, I was slightly disappointed considering I gave her my best 100-watt smile—the one that's been known to open doors in the past.
Apparently very few outsiders get into the facility, appointment or not. Even the team of pro-bono immigration lawyers who volunteer at the Dilley detention center everyday say they have to conduct their legal consultations in the visitation trailer. The rest of the grounds remain off limits and a bit of a mystery.
"We don't know a ton about what goes on in there; certainly not as much as we want to," says Ian Philabaum, advocacy coordinator for the CARA pro bono immigrant legal defense project in Dilley. "All of the information that we have about the place is anecdotal from the women who are seeking legal advice from us in the visitation center."
Homeland Security tells me numerous journalists have been asking about gaining access to the Dilley detention center, and a press tour may be in the works at some point in the future.
Welcome to America
Most of the women and children detained in Dilley are asylum-seekers from Central America who got caught at the border after entering the United States without documentation. Many of the women turned themselves in voluntarily.
Once the women and children are brought to Dilley or one of the other two family detention centers for processing, they have to prove "credible fear" to get an asylum officer to drop their expedited order of removal.
If they can do that, they usually get released to family members within 20 days after posting bond or with an ankle bracelet snapped snuggly above their foot. Then they go through immigration proceedings—a lengthy process where they will eventually go before a judge to make their case for asylum or another type of special visa to avoid deportation.
Dilley is their first contact with the U.S.' broken immigration system. And it's baptism by fire. Virtually none of the women speak English, and some of the indigenous women from the Guatemalan highlands don't even speak Spanish. So with a state-appointed interpreter on the phone and private guard watching their movements in a corrugated steel trailer, these women have to navigate an unknown legal system in a foreign language and reveal their most intimate trauma to a stranger in hopes of getting an ankle bracelet. Welcome to America.
"The whole system works to minimize [immigrants'] chances of actually receiving the protections they are entitled to under law. And, in the process, they are re-traumatized over and over again…by being forced to retell their most traumatic experiences over and over again," says Leland, an immigration lawyer friend of mine who volunteered at Dilley and asked me to withhold his last name. "Their trauma becomes their currency as they try to buy their freedom."
The brigade of volunteer immigration lawyers has made a difference. Since they inserted themselves into the process in 2014, they have managed to dramatically reduce the number of women and children who get fast-tracked to deportation.
"We have made a huge dent," says Michelle Mendez, an attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. "More women are proving credible fear and are being released."
Philabaum says immigration lawyers have managed to reverse the deportation numbers. "In 2016 only four of the thousands of families we have worked with in Dilley have been deported against their will," he told me.
Imagining life on the inside
Back in downtown Dilley, the folks I talked to seem unconcerned, unaware or uninterested about what's going on behind the fences on the other edge of town.
"I didn't even know that place existed until just recently. They say it's really big," says Eduardo, a waiter at the Taqueria Jalisco, which is only about 3 miles from the detention center.
"It's the biggest family detention center in the country," I assured him, biting into my burrito.
"Ah," he said, nodding.
Other residents are more plugged-in than Eduardo, but some only slightly. Many Dilleyites seem to think the detainees held at the immigrant detention center have things pretty good on the inside.
"They have everything they need in there," retired Dilley resident Viki Traviño told me. "I heard from a friend who works there that the women want to get out of detention and come into town, but there's nothing here."
Others also seem envious of the conditions on the inside.
"They've got schools, medical treatment and playing fields—they get better treatment than we do," one detention center staffer told me.
Judge Flores tells me that a lot of people in Dilley, especially the elderly folks who retired from agriculture, are "struggling to make it" and have mixed feelings about the $330 million the government has reportedly spent on "helping people from another country" at the CCA family detention center.
Still, the fact remains that the South Texas Family Residential Center is a detention center, not an all-inclusive gated community. The people who are in there are being held against their will (unless they opt to self-deport), and immigration advocates worry about the long-term psychological effects of detaining vulnerable women and children who are already traumatized by violence.
"There is no kind or gentle way to detain anyone, and it's illegal to detain children," says Philabaum. "There's a headline for you: U.S. population still doesn't know or care that we're illegally putting children in jail."
Homeland Security disagrees that it's illegal to detain children. The government agency continues to appeal a 1997 case known as the Flores Settlement, which stipulates that minors may not be detained by immigration authorities in secure facilities for more than 72 hours, except in exceptional circumstances.
"We have appealed the decision, and the appellate court has agreed to hear the appeal on an expedited basis," said Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. "Meanwhile, we have implemented significant reforms to how we operate family residential centers to transition them to temporary processing facilities for these individuals."
God bless the immigration crisis
As luck would have it, the U.S.' broken immigration system is Dilley's good fortune. The northern half of Central America is also broken, and that means more desperate people will continue to emigrate to the United States.
So as long as there's an immigration crisis, Dilley should have a steady source of employment.
"It would be devastating to our town if the detention center ever closed, but I think it's still premature to think that will happen," Judge Flores told me. "They still need a place to hold people and handle this type of crisis."
But the people of Dilley have seen industries come and go before, and not everyone thinks that the business of detaining immigrants will be lucrative forever. At some point, the CCA family detention center could go the way of the watermelon.
"A lot of people who work for the school district would like to go work for CCA, but they're hesitant to move there and lose their job in two years if the place closes," Flores said.
Other residents insist Dilley will get along just fine with or without the detention center.
"We don't know what's going to happen with the next president, and some people say the detention center will shut down then. But we used to run this town just fine without them," says Davalos, the hamburger queen of Dilley.
Something else will come along, she said. Something always does.
"Now they're saying that fracking will pick up again. And people here believe it, because they want to."