As an undocumented immigrant, I was familiar with the realities of detention centers, but I never thought I'd find myself in one, even as a visitor. When I was eight, my family and I immigrated to the Miami-metro area from South America. Despite the many struggles of living undocumented, I graduated from Florida State University last year and was granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a temporary relief program for those like me who came to the U.S. as children. While being detained and deported was always a risk, in my mind, it had a very small chance of actually occurring.
Before, I thought I understood the living conditions the women and children endured in detention centers. But as I interviewed more women and heard their stories, I learned the conditions are far worse than I imagined. Many of the women and children get sick when they are first apprehended by Border Patrol and confined in the hieleras, or freezers, holding cells so cold that people often get fevers. By the time they are brought to Karnes, they aren't any better, and they receive inadequate medical care, if any.
I wasn't prepared to hear about the psychological impact of being imprisoned. The women I interviewed fled horrific violence in Central America and risked everything to bring themselves and their children to safety in the U.S. Many of them were victims of unspeakable crimes at the hands of gang members and were unable to seek the protection of their own countries.
Anabel (I've changed her name to protect her identity) was kidnapped by a drug cartel member in Honduras. She was held captive in his house for several years, endured physical and sexual abuse, and gave birth to a son. She escaped with her four-year-old one night when the house wasn't under watch by other cartel members. But Anabel believed her kidnapper would find her if she stayed in Central America and she was afraid to turn to police, controlled by the cartels.
The women at Karnes have stories like Anabel's. They escaped life-threatening circumstances and crossed multiple borders with their children, thinking they were coming to a welcoming place, but instead they were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, shackled, and imprisoned like criminals. After having already experienced trauma, they are confined at Karnes, essentially an internment camp, where they spend months in uncertainty. Many women, including Anabel, said they feel depressed and powerless over what ultimately will happen to them and their children.
The guards make these feelings of helplessness worse. The women and older children told us that they are often ridiculed, laughed and yelled at in English, even though the staff knows most detainees don't understand. One of the women recalled a time when a guard said the women looked like dogs huddled around a food bowl.
When the detainees speak out about the conditions in Karnes, they face retaliation. After voicing a complaint about a guard, one of the women was told she was going to the medical center in the middle of the night, but was deported instead. Some guards threatened women with disciplinary actions they say will affect their immigration cases.
The degrading conditions don't stop there. The women repeatedly told me that the food is rotten, sometimes even infested with worms and flies. They often have to skip meals or go a whole day without food because the food is inedible. The women told us that they have reported to prison staff that their children are underweight, but nothing is done to change the conditions. Our two-week stay coincided with visits by members of Congress, during which the food at Karnes improved slightly.
Before I knew it, my two weeks of daily visits to Karnes ended and I was back in New York, helping clients who have been living in the U.S. for years apply for immigration benefits. I went back to hearing the same responses to the question "Why did you come to the U.S.?" For a better life, to work, to study, to prosper. The circumstances that pushed most of my clients, and my own family, out of our home countries are very different from the stories I heard in Texas. At Karnes, they came to survive.