The View from the Family Detention Center in Dilley

Kids in classrooms, not cages — with karaoke

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 6, 2020
  • The South Texas Family Residential Center at Dilley, Texas, provides food, clothing, and medical care for up to 2,400 migrants in family units who are awaiting "credible  fear" and "reasonable fear" interviews and immigration court proceedings.
  • Dilley is also a Texas charter school, which provides pre-K through high-school education to the youths who reside there.
  • Pro bono lawyers are available at Dilley to provide counsel to residents.
  • The 22,000-book library at Dilley includes an internet café and language-training software.
  • Presidential candidates' views on family detention are at odds with the reality on the ground.

On January 23, 2020, I had the opportunity to tour the South Texas Family Residential Center, which has been managed by CoreCivic for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Dilley, Texas, since 2014. Unlike the popular trope of "kids in cages", what I saw was kids in classrooms, and parents (primarily mothers) learning English, knitting, and preparing for their cases. With karaoke.

The tropes? From the Bernie Sanders campaign:

Bernie will overturn all of President Trump's actions to demonize and harm immigrants on the first day of his presidency. There is a humanitarian crisis at the border — one that Trump has manufactured. Bernie will end the barbaric practice of ripping children from their parents and locking children in cages, thoroughly audit and close detention centers, and work to undo the damage President Trump has done to our immigrant community and our national character.

Audit and close? Why bother with the audit?

From Pete Buttigieg:

The U.S. has the largest immigrant detention system in the world. Community-based alternatives to detention [ATD] such as family case management programs have been shown to be over 99% effective in terms of getting people to their court hearings. They are also much less expensive and more humane. [Emphasis added.]

Not so sure about the 99 percent effectiveness of ATD, or the humanity.

How about Joe Biden:

The Trump Administration has sought to circumvent the Flores agreement and hold children in detention indefinitely. But proven [ATD] and non-profit case management programs, which support migrants as they navigate their legal obligations, are the best way to ensure that they attend all required immigration appointments. These programs also enable migrants to live in dignity and safety while awaiting their court hearings — facilitating things like doctor visits, social services, and school enrollment for children. Evidence shows that these programs are highly effective and are far less expensive and punitive than detaining families. [Emphasis added.]

I assume he means "circumvent[ing]" Flores by issuing the regulations that the settlement agreement envisions.

In any event, you get the idea: Families and children are being held in inhumane conditions by a xenophobic government.

That is not what I saw in Dilley (where I doubt any of the candidates have been). The facility sits on 55 acres and has a capacity for 2,400 parents and children. It consists of five neighborhoods with 480 beds each, broken up into four complexes.

The complexes consist of two modular buildings that face each other. There is a roof covering the walkway between the buildings, which are broken down into individual housing units of 12 beds (six bunk beds) a piece. Only those over the age of 10 are allowed to sleep in the top bunk, and there are bed rails for smaller children in the lower bunks. Cribs are provided for toddlers under the age of 18 months. There is a television with gaming systems in each of the units.

Housing the residents at Dilley is like a game of Tetris. Different families with younger children (under the age of six) can be housed together, but families with older boys cannot be housed with families with older girls. When the facility is at capacity (there were only 1,250 residents when I visited), a divider can be placed between the groups of 12 beds, separating the room into two rooms of six beds. Unless the math works out perfectly, however, there will be unused bunks.

Each of the complexes also contains a laundry room. There are several machines and laundry is free, with the detergent automatically loaded into the washer.

At the end of each of the complexes is a bathroom, with a women's lavatory and showers at one end and a men's lavatory and showers at the other. The complexes also have a small kitchen where milk, juice, fruit, and cookies are available 24 hours a day. Finally, there are mailboxes in each unit: one for outside mail (paper, pens, envelopes, and stamps are provided for free); one for ICE and medical, where residents can file medical grievances; and one that is for ICE only, where residents can request forms.

In addition, there are telephones available for the residents to use. In the telephone room, there is a listing of the phone numbers for various foreign consulates, and a private telephone room in the back for legal calls.

Immigration courts are located onsite, with immigration judges (IJs) appearing via video teleconference (VTC). The one that I saw had a bench and desks for the government and alien respondents, a vestige of a time (in 2017) when IJs were sent on detail to Dilley, only to find cases that were not ready for adjudication. The courtrooms have now been reconfigured so that one of the desks faces the large VTC screen.

In addition, there is a building that is dedicated to visitation. The visitation building has 14 rooms, 12 of which are dedicated to pro bono counsel (there are pro bono attorneys onsite for the respondents), as well as two rooms for family visitation and paid lawyers to visit with their clients.

There is also a separate building where asylum officers conduct credible fear and reasonable fear interviews. Residents are given 48 hours to meet with attorneys before they receive their interviews with the asylum officers.

Previously, consular officers had to provide travel documents before nationals of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras without fears of return could be repatriated, but now those nationals can be removed without documentation under Electronic Nationality Verification, or ENV. As then-Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan explained in September 2019: "ENV gives us the ability to return migrants without any claim of fear to their countries of origin in an expedited manner, by verifying their nationality electronically."

At the time that I was in Dilley, there were nationals from those and tens of other countries, including Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, France, Georgia, and Kazakhstan.

The first building that aliens arrive at is the intake building. Most of the families who are sent to Dilley come from the Border Patrol's Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, but Dilley services families who are apprehended along both the southern and the northern borders.

New arrivals are given a box lunch and 15 minutes' time to recuperate from the trip to the facility. They are also given the opportunity at intake to take a shower, and the medical staff performs a quick assessment. All females over the age of 10 are given pregnancy tests, and all are screened for illness and lice. If any newly arrived resident has an urgent medical condition, they are sent to the medical facility for treatment, but all new residents will receive a complete physical within 48 hours.

The arrivals are served with their credible fear/reasonable fear paperwork, and a list of free legal services. Next, personal belongings are bagged and inventoried, and while residents can keep their own clothes (which the facility will wash), they are also given eight new sets of season-appropriate clothing, bedding, and their own large plastic tumbler. Families are given a cart to transport their new belongings in, and an identification card that allows them to move around the facility.

There are eight medical rooms at the facility, as well as full dental facilities, X-ray, and mental health providers. There are "zero-airflow" rooms to accommodate those suffering from airborne ailments, and medical housing for those who require long-term care. The facility is staffed with doctors from the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as contract medical providers. The medical center onsite is open from 8 am to 8 pm, but 24-hour medical care is always available.

All residents are given vaccinations to comply with the state's vaccination requirements. Medication is provided for those with chronic and acute conditions, disbursed on a daily basis from the pharmacy. Residents are not permitted, for obvious reasons, to keep medication with them.

Dilley has a beauty salon that provides styling and haircuts for free. The salon has four to five stylists.

Hot meals are provided three times a day: two entrees with a starch and a vegetable, a full salad and dessert bar, and a rice and beans bar. There is hot coffee, water, milk, and juice at every meal. I was there before lunch, and the staff was preparing entrees of smothered chicken and corn dog nuggets. The meals are all-you-can-eat.

For those who are unable to make it to a meal, boxed meals are available or they can have meals delivered to court. There are two dining halls (one a permanent structure, the other a steel-reinforced temporary structure), and the dining halls are sanitized after every meal.

There is also a commissary, where residents can purchase additional food and personal items. Families and friends can deposit money to be used at the commissary into the residents' accounts. Alternatively, residents can volunteer to work at the facility doing odd jobs like sweeping, and have the money deposited into those accounts.

There is a small mark-up on each of the items the commissary sells, which is then used to provide additional amenities for the facility, such as movies for movie nights, a pop-corn machine, and karaoke.

There is a library with 22,000 books, as well as an internet café where residents can play music, watch YouTube, play videogames, or surf the internet. Residents are not allowed to Skype, or use social media such as Facebook or Twitter. There is also a law library in the building, which is underutilized given the presence of pro bono counsel.

In addition, there is a separate room that provides English-language training through Rosetta Stone. That room was very busy the day that I was there.

Dilley is also a Texas-licensed charter school, providing classes from pre-K through high school. Core curriculum classes are taught for four hours daily, with physical education when class is not in session. All of the students receive library time, and students over the age of 12 can get a day pass to get out of physical education and return to their dormitories, go to the library, or play in one of the other gymnasiums. Upon discharge, the students receive a transcript reflecting their studies and achievement.

In the classrooms, every student has a computer, and there are 72-inch touchscreens for the teachers to use in lieu of blackboards. I visited two of the classrooms, one a preschool and the other a grade-school class. At the teachers' direction, the children greeted me before returning to their computers. The grade-school class had done a biology unit shortly before where they were experimenting with plants. There were tomatoes, peas, and beans that the students had grown, which were sprouting out of small planters spread around the room and on the windowsill.

The classes with the younger children are located closer to the medical facility. Daycare is also provided for parents who have medical appointments, asylum interviews, court hearings, or volunteer work.

There is also a large recreation yard, with basketball hoops, a large shaded area, and two handball walls. Just beyond is a recreation facility where Zoomba classes are held, movies are screened, karaoke is provided, and children can play indoors. Women sat inside together knitting and talking, while Spanish music blared from a speaker pointed out the door.

Finally, there are areas available for pastoral care. Priests, ministers, and imams are invited in for services.

Referring back to the candidates' comments, the facility that I saw was extremely safe, clean, and well run. The door that I passed through to enter and exit was not locked, nor were gates on either side of the facility.

If Dilley were closed, as Sen. Sanders demands, would the residents receive the same care? Respectfully, who would feed them, clothe them, educate them, and provide them with medical treatment? Public education is free in the United States, but it is not focused on new arrivals, as the Dilley charter school is. Most of the students would arrive with little understanding of the English language, and the cost would be borne by the locality in which they settled — not the federal government.

Medical care can also be obtained for free in places, but that requires travel to an emergency center that is not designed to treat common ailments — meaning public transportation or a driver. Such treatment places a strain on an already overtaxed medical system (check out your local emergency room at 7:00 pm on a Monday and see for yourself), and there might still be a charge, especially for medication. And again, the local hospital ends up footing the bill, which means we all do. None of this is an issue at Dilley.

Relatives could provide food and clothing, but that makes the recipient dependent upon their largesse, and their ability to pay. All is taken care of at Dilley.

The same arguments would respond to Buttigieg's comments on the expense and humaneness of ATD. Dilley is not cheap, but the federal government pays the bill as part of its border-enforcement strategy — not the communities into which those aliens are released. As for the humane nature of the place, Dilley was a lot safer than the streets of Baltimore. Or South Bend, Ind., for that matter.

One image that I took away was that of a young girl, around the age of four, in a pink knit hat skipping along the sidewalk. Was every resident at Dilley "skipping along"? No, but none seemed particularly discomfited to be there, either.

That said, if the claims of advocates are true, the majority of the residents are all escaping from dangerous and poverty-stricken conditions. Residents at Dilley, on the other hand, are kept safe, fed, clothed, and educated, and their medical, mental-health, and dental needs are all attended to. Respectfully, that is the very definition of "humanity". Buttigieg's immigration white paper is captioned "I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me". Even the best detention is detention, but food, housing, clothing, education, and care is the epitome of "welcome" — not turning people out onto the streets to fend for themselves.

Then there is Biden. Remember that Dilley opened during the "Obama-Biden administration", so he should know better. If it was good enough then, why isn't it good enough now? And if the former vice president defines "enabl[ing] migrants to live in dignity and safety while awaiting their court hearings" as "facilitating things like doctor visits, social services, and school enrollment for children", that is a mission that he has already accomplished at Dilley, which, as noted, provides all of those needs. In the words of the popular karaoke song: "You Oughta Know", Joe.

Dilley works — effectively, efficiently, and humanely. Only ignorant sanctimony could end the care that it provides to its residents. Unfortunately, that is a commodity that Washington has an endless supply of.