Two ten-year-old girls ran across the room toward one another and hugged. The fifth-graders had not seen each other since they were classmates in Honduras and their excitement at this unexpected reunion was palpable. I handed them a pad of paper and a pencil, and they began to draw the words “I love you” and stick figures of each other and their names. This would have been a sweet interaction if not for its location: the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
I visited Dilley last month with Human Rights First, an international human rights nonprofit organization. The girls’ reunion reflects what I saw while there: attempted normalcy in far-from-normal conditions.
Dilley currently holds more than 1,500 mothers and children, including babies and toddlers, with the capacity to hold up to 2,400. Families who arrive get food, clothing and beds. There is a library and school and playgrounds. And yet, lurking beneath the surface are clues of the toll detention takes on the families staying there.
The playground was mostly empty. Children clung to their mothers, afraid to venture outside to play. The mothers were afraid to let them, telling us that staff warned them to “watch their children carefully” because they would be responsible if the child got hurt on the playground.
While there is a school at Dilley, it’s not big enough for children to spend the full day there. For the four hours every day that children are not in class, I would expect to hear the noises of routine childhood play — make-believe games, reading, playing tag, laughing. I did not hear these noises at Dilley. The environment was eerily quiet. That is because detention replaces the joys of everyday childhood activities with fear and anxiety, causing the children’s “fight or flight” stress hormones to remain elevated.
By Colleen Kraft, for USA TODAY
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