The Lasting Trauma of Family Detention

Photo: Loren Elliott/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, after weeks of outrage, President Trump signed an executive order ending his administration’s practice of separating undocumented immigrants from their children at the border. Under his new policy, families who attempt to come into the United States illegally will instead be detained together indefinitely. While this is perhaps less obviously inhumane than separating children — some as young as 14 months old — from their parents and forcing them into detention camps alone, it has a similar end result: kids being held in cages, just alongside their parents.

When immigrant families are thrown into detention camps together, children are subjected to a litany of traumas and treated like criminals. Many of them are fleeing unimaginable violence and instability; in the centers, they’re reportedly underfed, denied appropriate medical treatment, and held in crowded rooms with other families. Their contact with the world is severely restricted, and rarely allowed outside, they struggle to cope.

“I had seen kids in all manner of suffering, but this was a really different thing,” an immigration attorney who volunteered in a facility in New Mexico told the New York Times. “It’s a jail, and the women and children are being led around by guards. There’s this look that the kids have in their eyes. This lackadaisical look. They’re just sitting there, staring off, and they’re wasting away. That was what shocked me most.”

To get a clearer understanding of what it’s like to experience family detention, we spoke to two mothers who were detained with their children — both before Trump took office — about the lasting impact detention has had on their families, and the long, painful legacy of America’s flawed immigration policies.

Both women say their children were confused and terrified while they were being held in detention. Years later, they still bear the psychic scars of their time inside. “My son has always been a very sensitive child, but in the past two months, he’s been more introspective, crying more,” one mother said. “I think it’s because the memories are coming back.”

Both interviews were conducted through an interpreter and have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ana, from El Salvador, detained in Dilley, Texas, with her 4-year-old daughter in 2016

As soon as Border Patrol detained us, they asked immediately for my papers and my daughter’s papers. I handed them over, and they took us to the icebox [a term used to describe border processing facilities, which are notoriously cold]. They had taken our coats, and my daughter was sick; she had a fever. I told the officer that my daughter had a fever, and the officer just answered, “You should have thought about that before.”

There were many, many people. I saw a young woman who was seven months pregnant with a 1-year-old baby. They had been in the icebox for a week. They were sleeping on the floor, covered with aluminum blankets, and they could barely move from the cold.

We only spent half a day in the icebox, and then they sent us to la perrera, the dog pound [the cages in which families were held]. While we were there, at least my daughter wasn’t cold. The cage where I was, it was a big, big cage, and they gave each mom a thin mattress. Each mattress would have a mom and her kid; if she had another kid, sometimes they would give them another mattress. There were around 15 to 20 people in the cage.

The moms were given thermal blankets; that’s what we used to cover ourselves. We were only allowed to go out at meal times, and that was the only time we were allowed to use the bathroom. If we didn’t go to the bathroom during lunch or breakfast, we had to wait until the next time, and that was really complicated for little kids.

We spent five days in la perrera, and then we were taken to the detention center, which was three hours away. They took away everything we had, even the medicine for my daughter. They gave us a shower and assigned us some bunk beds. Each mom and her child would get a bunk bed to share. In my room, I was sharing with five families.

It was very difficult to adapt to the detention center. My daughter remembers our time there and still brings it up. She says, “Do you remember when we were in prison? Do you remember when we were in prison?” When she sees police officers, she still gets scared and says, “They’re going to take us to prison again.”

I don’t want her to have the memory of being in prison. I try to tell her, “Yes, I remember, but let’s try to use a different word,” so it doesn’t sound that bad.

I didn’t fully explain to my daughter why we left El Salvador, but she knew why we had to leave — because gang members had not only threatened me, but also told her she would be killed. She knew about other people who had been killed, so she understood why we had to leave.

When we got to the United States, she used to cry a lot. She said, “I know that we had to leave, but I don’t like it here. I want to go back.” She struggled a lot. The whole process was very hard. She asked, “What’s going to happen to us? Why are we here? Are things going to get better?” And I just couldn’t find answers because I didn’t know myself.

During the day, she would say she was fine, but at night it was really hard. She would go to bed crying.

My daughter is now constantly scared. When people talk too loud, she gets very nervous — even when I watch the news. She thought we were coming to a safer place, running away from the threats against us. But when we got to the United States, it wasn’t like that. We were still being mistreated.

Angelina, from El Salvador, detained in New Mexico with her 6-year-old son in 2014

I got to the border after four hours in a boat, and Border Patrol told me that they were not offering asylum to those who were fleeing from gangs because everyone else there was seeking asylum for the same reason. They asked me what kind of violence I had faced in El Salvador, and I said that my father had been murdered and I was being threatened by a gang. I was part of law enforcement there, which was another reason they were threatening me.

After that, we waited for five days, and then we were sent to the detention center. There were many women there, many of them with small children. There were some conflicts with the officers — they constantly complained and blamed us because they didn’t have days off anymore, because they had to stay there longer hours than before.

We were harassed. We were treated like animals. Sometimes our food was not cooked; it was not good for consumption. In the beginning, the center only held women, and the officers were all men, which made the environment more uncomfortable for us.

We never had medical support. Children would get sick, and there was no one we could talk to. I remember there was one girl who had seizures. At one point, it got really serious. They brought her to the hospital, and they did not give her mother the results of the tests — only the officers. This girl is still suffering consequences from that.

I also saw women who had already been deported officially, but they were still there, waiting with their children. I remember one mother and her 2-year-old son; they had to leave their home country because the father of the son had been killed by a gang, and the gang was threatening to kill them both. They had been deported three months earlier, but they were still waiting in that same detention center.

In the detention centers, the kids would play, and the characters they’d pretend to be were those that they saw in the detention center or on their journey. One child would play the officer; the other one would play the coyote. After some families went to court, they would also pretend they were in court — there was the judge, and there was an immigrant talking to the judge. The officers got offended, and they didn’t want the kids to pretend to be them anymore. So they asked the mothers to make them stop. They didn’t understand that was the natural reaction from kids: They play what they see, and that’s what they’d been seeing for so many months.

My son has always been a very sensitive child, but in the past two months, he’s been more introspective, crying more. I think it’s because the memories are coming back. Perhaps he didn’t process things, and he’s now processing everything that happened back then, when he was too young to understand. With all the news from the border — and the fact that his father is now in an ICE detention center — he’s asking more questions, and memories are coming back. I don’t want that to happen.

Now that he can read, we read the news together. When he first read about children being separated from their families, he would say, “They cannot do that! Why would they do that?” In addition to questioning how and why that could happen, he’s also really afraid of the day that I’m supposed to go to court because he’s afraid they’ll do the same to us.

Some people think that all the things that are happening now, in the border and the detention centers, started this year. But my case took place in 2014. All of the abuses that have been happening in the detention centers and during the asylum-seeking process can be avoided, and it’s not a new thing. The system needs to be changed. The damage that’s been done to children and families is not something that can be fixed.

The Lasting Trauma of Family Detention