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A revealing and sobering look at migrant families held in detention

Detained children line up in September 2014 in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for migrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said earlier this year that federal officials were  making "substantial changes" to end the long-term detention of migrant families who are being held in Texas.
Eric Gay
Detained children line up in September 2014 in the cafeteria at an immigrant detention facility that once housed unauthorized migrant women and children in Karnes City, Texas.

Luis Zayas, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, is author of the book “Through Iceboxes and Kennels: How Immigration Detention Harms Children and Families.”

The Biden Administration is said to be considering reinstating a controversial policy that detains unauthorized migrant families. Luis Zayas, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, examines the impact of detention facilities in his new book, “Through Iceboxes and Kennels: How Immigration Detention Harms Children and Families.”

Zayas spoke with KERA’s Stella Chávez about his interviews with children and mothers held in detention, including Karnes County Detention Facility in Karnes City, Texas.

You spent a lot of time talking with families in detention, what experiences stayed with you?

“One in particular that comes to mind of a young boy [who] was in Karnes [County Detention Facility] with is mother and she had been part of a hunger strike that had occurred at Karnes because mothers were concerned that their children and themselves were not getting the kind of treatment, food and services they thought they deserved, so they started a hunger strike.

This mother was placed in a medical isolation room for over 24 hours under observation, there were cameras in the room. As I was interviewing this boy, his mother comes in, knocks on the door really rapidly and she said in a panic, ‘They’re listening to us. They’re listening to you.’ And I was puzzled what she meant.

She had heard someone say over the sound system in Karnes that there was a boy who needed a bar of soap and there had been an episode where [her son] had asked for a bar of soap and was denied, and she assumed they were in some way listening in to my conversation with her son. It was tragic because she had had so much difficulty in the detention center, but also because her son was there watching her.

And I looked at him as he looked at her and I saw the fear in his eyes that here his mother was going through this and behaving irrationally.”

You describe these detention centers as prisons while officials describe them as family residences. Can you explain that difference?

“The Immigration and Customs Enforcement people decided that they would call these family residential centers. However, when you look at a place like Karnes [County] Detention Facility, it is an old county prison and has walls that are 20 feet high, no windows.

Inside are a series of doors through which you have to pass and which are operated from behind windowed enclosures, so that the guards could see out, press a button to let you in or out, and the doors would clang behind you as they close and you would pass that door and wait till they could enter the next door.

There was a courtyard, but then you see the cells…and you enter these rooms and there are perhaps four to eight bunk beds. The lights are on all day. It looks like a prison cell except that the doors do not have bars, so families can come in and out. But they’re living inside what would otherwise have been county jail cells.

And that does not make for a quaint family residential center. They were prisons no matter which way you describe them.”

President Biden criticized the detention of migrant families when he ran for office and he ended the practice in 2021. What’s your reaction to reports his administration is considering reviving this policy?

“It’s very troubling that that is part of the conversation because of the damage that detention does. There are two elements to being in a detention center.

One is deprivation. For children, it’s deprivation of the average expectable experiences that children would have. You know, taking their bicycles to school, waiting for the school bus, playing with their friends on the sidewalk and coloring with chalk —all the things kids need for normal development.

The other one is threat. There’s a constant threat by the guards and staff to the children’s psychological security and even physical integrity. The children were not necessarily maltreated physically, but guards would say things that were demeaning and frightening.

‘Oh, you’re not worth much. Your mom is going to be left here and you’re going to be allowed to go.’

These threats that eroded a child’s confidence and mental health and sense of security and stability.”

Luis Zayas is the former dean of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at UT-Austin. Click on "Listen" above to hear the extended interview.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.