The First Look Inside America's Largest Immigrant Youth Detention Center Is Horrifying

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Earlier this month, police were called to help turn away Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley from the Casa Padre detention center in Brownsville, TX, where more than 1,400 immigrant boys—many of them forcibly separated from their families—are being held inside a repurposed Walmart. On Wednesday evening, Casa Padre finally opened its doors to the public, inviting reporters from the Washington Post and NBC to tour the facilities.

And if the principle of locking away children whose only crime is existing on the “wrong” side of a border doesn’t already make you sick, the images and stories starting to come out of Casa Padre should make your blood boil.

Casa Padre is one of more than two dozen centers owned by Southwest Key Programs, a Texas-based private nonprofit group under federal contract to run children’s detention facilities across Texas, Arizona, and California. Casa Padre is the largest facility of its kind in the country.


The first thing a visitor sees upon entering Casa Padre, noted NBC’s Jacob Soboroff, is a large mural of President Donald Trump. Alongside it is a quote of his—a tweet, actually—reading: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.” What, exactly, battles and wars have to do with locking children away in a former big box store is left to the visitors imagination.

From the reports, the amenities appear relatively innocuous, if decidedly spartan. According to the Post, children are put through an intake process that lasts up to 72 hours, and are then sent to sleep five to a room (a “room” being a partitioned area with walls that reach only halfway to the roof) due to overcrowding. During the day, they watch movies, play basketball, and follow instructions on how to behave during mealtime, dictated by murals painted along the walls . It’s lights out at 9, and back on again at 6.

When it comes time to eat, children must scan in with barcode bracelets, Soboroff tweeted.


The children are kept indoors for approximately 22 hours a day, Soboroff reported. According to the Post, they’re allowed outside for one hour of exercise, and are given an additional hour for “free time.”


If this is all starting to sound eerily familiar, that’s because it is. Between the forced schedules, dictated rules, and constant surveillance, this is a jail in everything but name only.


“You might want to smile,” Southwest Key employee Alexia Rodriguez said to the gaggle of journalists touring Casa Padre, according to the Post. “The kids feel a little like animals in a cage, being looked at.”

Martin Hinojosa, director of compliance for Southwest Key Programs, defended Casa Padre to the Post.


“We’re trying to do the best that we can taking care of these children. Our goal ultimately is to reunite kids with their families,” he said. “We’re not a detention center. … What we operate are shelters that take care of kids. It’s a big, big difference.”

For Soboroff, who experienced the “shelter” firsthand, it’s a distinction without a difference.


“I have been inside a federal prison and county jails. This place is called a shelter but these kids are incarcerated,” he tweeted after his tour. “No cells and no cages, and they get to go to classes about American history and watch Moana, but they’re in custody.”


Speaking to the Post, Hinojosa claimed that 5% of the children detained at Casa Padre were forcibly removed from their parents when they entered the U.S. Across all of Southwest Key Programs’ facilities, that number is closer to 10%. With 5,129 total children housed by the group, according to the Post, that’s over 500 kids locked away from their parents against their will by the federal government.

Notably, especially given President Trump’s constant fearmongering that immigrant children are possible agents of multinational street gangs, Southwest Key Programs officials told Soboroff that exactly none of their prisoners are members of MS-13. In fact, the officials said they’ve never had a known MS-13 member in their center.


The Post ran a picture of another presidential mural at Casa Padre—this one of Barack Obama. Next to it is a quote from a 2014 speech, in which he said, “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.”

It’s a nice sentiment (even coming from a president whose own draconian immigration policies helped pave the way for Trump’s outrages), but comically out of place in a facility designed to strip children of their freedom.