Illustration by Chloe Olsen
The “Ice Box”, “Dog Cages”, & Detention Center in Dilley
“They were terrified, because they had heard about the family separations at our southern border. They could hear their children crying desperately for them, but were helpless to console them.”
Dilley doesn’t have a facility like the ones we see on the news with chain link fence cages. However, the women and children we spoke with had just come from those places. They referred to them as the “Ice Box” (“La Hielera”) and the “Dog Pound” or “Dog Cages” (“La Perrera”). Usually, Border Patrol had picked them up a few hours after having traversed the Rio Grande River, and taken them to one of those two facilities. Some women and children had to pass through both facilities, others just one. The length of stay was about 3-8 days at each location, according to the women I spoke to, but those numbers can vary from person to person. The conditions I heard about there were deeply troubling, and most women were emotional as they spoke about their experiences.
Some women were temporarily separated from their children in those facilities. They were terrified, because they had heard about the family separations at our southern border. They could hear their children crying desperately for them, but were helpless to console them. As a mother, the thought of this anguish brings me to tears. It’s an unbearable burden that no one should ever have to bear.
I was told that the “Dog Pound” was aptly named because the asylum-seekers felt they were treated like dogs there. They were barked at, put in cages, stripped of their dignity. The “Ice Box” was named for the low, air-conditioned temperatures. The cold was problematic because they were forced to throw away any extra clothes or layers of clothing they had upon entering the facility. Many had to hand over purses and other belongings as well. These items were never returned to them. They were given mylar blankets and put into crowded cages. When children and women got tired and needed to sleep, the dirty, cold cement floor was often the only option, so they would lay the aluminum foil-like blanket on the ground and try to sleep. The cold and crowding was especially difficult for the children, most of whom became sick with colds, fevers, coughs, respiratory issues, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Based on what I heard from the women I spoke to, they were not provided with adequate medical care at those facilities. It was limited and insufficient. It is also my understanding that the food was awful. Some reported eating the same meal (burritos) for every meal for eight days. Others mentioned food so foul-smelling and gross that they went hungry. When mothers would ask for more food or a little juice for their children, they were coldly denied. The bathrooms were dirty, smelly, and disgusting. When they requested a shower, they were sharply denied unless it was their turn, as only 20 people were allowed to shower each day. Some “mattresses” were distributed in the evenings, but taken away again sometime between 4 or 5 in the morning. Often there were not enough pads for everyone in the cages to sleep on. Sometimes they were so crowded that they had to sleep on their sides or sitting up in order to make room for everyone. In addition, the night hours were frequently interrupted with announcements, new arrivals, and instructions to get into various lines. They were repeated yelled at and told to stand during the night, and the lights were always on so sleep was very difficult, especially with all of the stress and anxiety that the mothers are carrying.
Inside the Family Detention Center in Dilley:
“Every night I wait for [my child] to go to sleep, then I just cry and cry. Whenever I cry [my child] starts to cry, too, so I wait until the night to cry.” (One mother describes how she juggles her emotional distress while protecting her child from it. (translated from Spanish))
The Detention Center (officially named the South Texas Residential Family Center) is located in a remote town called Dilley, population 3,674. It is about 75 miles from the border. It seems that detention centers are intentionally and cruelly placed in remote areas. The American Immigration Council reported that, “[…] individuals detained by ICE [are] commonly held in privately operated and remotely located facilities, far away from basic community support structures and legal advocacy networks.” (Click on the link for more information on this). The detention buildings themselves are surrounded with tan slat-filled chain link fencing and are removed from the highway, making it very difficult to take a photograph. Photos are prohibited anywhere near the grounds.
Inside the fence and security trailer, there are many rows of more trailers, much like the extra school classroom trailers occasionally seen at crowded schools. It is the largest immigrant detention center in the United States with a capacity of 2,400 on 50 acres and has been in operation for almost five years. The operating cost of the facility is about $320 per person per day, according to a statement made to reporters by an official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Security is tight. We were required to empty the entire contents of our computer bags for inspection and electronic scanning before we could pass through the metal detector. No cameras were allowed (including apple watches, etc.). Lunch and snacks were fine to bring, but nothing with metal or glass was permitted. This security is more rigid than at state prison facilities.
We had to observe a conservative dress code (clothing had to go below the knee. No tank tops, and nothing sheer). The temperature could range from uncomfortably hot to uncomfortably cold, even though the thermostats always said the same thing. We wore layers for that reason.
We had VERY little access to the women. They could come to us, but we couldn’t go to them. We were only allowed to go to “our” trailer, and occasionally to the asylum officer’s trailer or the court trailer right next to it. This was only if we were scheduled to do so, and we were escorted by an immigration employee there and back. There was no running allowed. On those walks, we caught small glimpses of the inside. A tent-like structure that I later learned was the place they eat, a “guardaria” (day care) trailer, a small playground, and more rows of shared living quarter trailers with dirt roads/paths leading to each. We were also told that there was a gym (that wasn’t used by anyone we spoke to), a school (using the trailers) and a medical clinic.
One woman described the living quarters as having a room with 3 larger mattresses (for mom and child to share), bunk beds, as well as a TV. This is in sharp contrast to the crowded cages from which they had just come.
No hugging or physical contact of any kind other than a handshake was allowed. This was difficult to observe as sometimes I really wanted to give the women and children hugs or at least pat them on the shoulder in comfort as they cried.
The landscape included a few bushes, but was mostly desolate and flat with no trees. The huge open empty sky allowed for a blanket of heat and humidity to settle evenly across the entire place. This time of year, with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees with high humidity, no one stays outside longer than absolutely necessary.
Unlike the “Ice Box” or “Dog Pound”, authorities provide clean clothes to the new arrivals, and Residents are allowed to bathe when needed. They are provided with three decent meals a day with vegetables and 2 hour blocks for meal times.
Also, children can enroll in school! Some children were so excited about this because they, for various reasons, had been unable to attend school, sometimes for years before their arrival. They were anxious to learn and to feel “normal”.
The legal support trailer where we worked had desks at either end by the doors. The desks were staffed by immigration employees. They oversaw who came in and who came out. We came through one door, while residents of the facility came through another and had to check in and out when coming or going. There are small private interview rooms (including a table, a few chairs, sometimes a telephone for legal-related calls, a window, an AC unit, and a door with a viewing window) around the periphery. The central, larger room is where we would conduct welcome and farewell meetings, as well as help them fill out intake paperwork. There was also a small room for children to wait in with small tables and chairs, a TV with cartoons, and the option to ask for paper and crayons, but sometimes they would run out (we were not allowed to bring in any from the outside). Many children wouldn’t go to or stay in that room because they refused to leave their mother’s side, or the mothers refused to let the children out of their sight (they’ve seen the news about child separation).
All reports were that this facility was a VAST improvement from where they had just been (“Ice box” and “Dog Pound”), but even still, all of the women and children were just anxious to GET OUT of the facility and go join their partners, sponsors, etc., and start living their lives.
Part 4 of this story will include details about the detained mothers and children