To hear President Donald Trump and his advisors talk about the US southern border, a person would get the impression that the Obama administration had rolled out the red carpet to welcome anyone and everyone who wanted to enter the country. Echoing a statement Trump made often on the campaign trail, he promised to “bring back our borders,” in an inauguration speech filled with sinister imagery and nationalistic bombast.
In reality, many of the people who show up at the southern border are women and children fleeing life-threatening circumstances and seeking asylum in the United States. Contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, Obama’s immigration policy involved deporting more people than any other president and resurrecting a program of family detention originally developed under President George W Bush. Now, Trump’s executive orders may mean an increase in detention at the border and the building of new detention facilities — including the notorious family jails that gained attention toward the end of the Obama administration.
For all the attention paid to Trump’s brutal executive orders, the issue of family detention has gone almost completely ignored in the media. It’s still unclear exactly how the women and children who are held will be impacted by the orders, or Trump’s administration at large. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains immigrants in “over 200 county jails and for-profit prisons,” according to Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). Women and children are only held in three of those facilities, however — two in Texas, at Karnes and Dilley, and one in Berks, Pennsylvania. The population at the three existing immigrant family jails fluctuates, but at capacity they can hold up to about 3,000 people.
For now, “it’s been business as usual” says Amy Fischer, policy director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which represents immigrants and asylum seekers in court. “Prior to January 20th, we were seeing asylum-seeking families being turned away at the border. That’s something we’re still seeing. The fact that things have not changed drastically shows how bad things already were.”
Still, lawyers are watching to make sure the family jails are in compliance with a federal judge’s order limiting how long families can be held. At times, Obama’s family detention policy kept some women and their children locked up for more than a year. Now, the average length of detainment is between two and four weeks, following an order by Judge Dolly Gee forcing the government to release families within 20 days of their capture.
“What we’re keeping our eye on is the fact that both Karnes and Dilley are secure unlicensed facilities,” says Fischer. “A state judge in Texas refused the ability to license these detention centers as licensed childcare facilities. So we know any family that is in either Karnes or Dilley for over 20 days is in violation of Judge Gee’s decision.” Fischer adds that the Obama administration violated that order regularly, though in recent months the government has largely complied with it.
Trump’s orders instruct the Department of Homeland Security to add to an already existing wall along the southern border, to defund sanctuary cities, and to deputize local and state cops as immigration enforcement agents. One of the orders also calls for new construction of immigrant detention centers, which Thomas Homan, the new head of ICE, confirmed in a press conference on Tuesday. “We’re in the process of identifying additional detention capacity,” Homan said.
Promises like that are terrifying immigrant communities around the country, who often already harbor justified mistrust of law enforcement. Luis Aguilar is advocacy and elections specialist at CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights advocacy group. He’s undocumented, but currently protected by Obama’s deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) policy. Although Trump hasn’t taken action to revoke DACA yet, it’s something he has talked about previously. The executive orders, combined with the State Department’s decision to revoke already-issued visas, will also make it hard for Aguilar’s mother to see her own mother, who is outside the country. “She says, I worry I’ll never see her again,” Aguilar tells me. He says people are scared of school or workplace raids and “how the proliferation of detention centers will affect the community, because people are swept in, and you don’t have access to a lawyer.”
Nayeli, another member of CASA de Maryland who asked only to be identified by her first name, is also protected by DACA, but says she’s seen an increase in hate crimes in her community. “A lot of people say, if the President can do it, why can’t I?” she tells me. She’s scared that her daughter will be targeted by classmates at school — yet another way in which immigrant communities are suffering from the atmosphere that Trump’s policies are exacerbating. A lot of women and children in her community were detained at either Karnes or Dilley, and although those families likely wouldn’t be detained following an ICE raid, the administration’s new expanded enforcement priorities mean a lot of immigrants could be. “People are afraid to go to the store,” Nayeli says.
In 2009, Obama scrapped George W. Bush’s policy of family detention, but resurrected the programs in 2014 following an influx of asylum-seeking children and their mothers at the southern border. After initially holding families at a facility in Artesia, his administration eventually settled on keeping families at two facilities in Texas, one in Karnes and one in nearby Dilley, and a third, smaller facility in Berks, Pennsylvania.
Katie Shepherd, a legal fellow at the American Immigration Council, worries that Trump’s promises to deport millions of undocumented people could land more women and children in detention with curtailed due process access. “One of the orders allows the Secretary [of Homeland Security] to implement to the fullest extent of the law the expedited removal provision,” Shepherd told me. “The way it has been implemented before January 25 is, if you were 100 miles from the border and it’s under two weeks of you coming to the United States, then you could be apprehended and detained through expedited removal procedures, which means you have very limited access to due process — it calls for mandatory detention — and if and when an asylum officer says you don’t have the requisite credible fear, you have very limited review by a judge.”
Trump’s order drastically expanded the scope of expedited removal. “The difference is now, after January 25, it isn’t just two weeks, it’s two years. And it’s the entirety of the United States, not just 100 miles from the border,” Shepherd says. “These orders really expanded what constitutes an enforcement priority. So it’s not just being convicted of a crime, it’s committed acts for which you could be charged with a crime. It could be jaywalking. It could be entering the country without inspection.”
That kind of expansion could give Trump’s deportation forces the breadth they need to carry out his radical expulsion plan, including detaining large numbers of women and children. “If DHS decides to do what it calls ‘interior enforcement actions,’ or raids, and they start to target folks who have been here for less than two years, they could then be transferred to the family detention centers in Dilley, Karnes, Berks, and any future potential family detention centers and then be forced to undergo the [expedited removal] process,” Shepherd says. “I think that’s a very realistic potentiality.”
It’s not only a potentiality; there’s recent precedent for it under the Obama administration. “Last January, we had raids where they targeted Central American families, and 121 women and children were taken to Dilley,” says Shepherd. Every family they were able to meet with and represent, they won their cases.
Trump’s appointment of Homan as acting director of ICE is a not-so-subtle signal that his administration will follow through on his campaign promise to deport millions of undocumented people living in the United States. “I’m a cop in a cop’s job, and cops work for me,” Homan told The Washington Post last April. He was previously executive associate director for enforcement and removal operations (ERO), which means his job was “rounding up, detaining and kicking [undocumented] immigrants out of the country,” according to the Post.
For immigrant advocates, Homan’s appointment is a nightmare scenario, and a sign that family jails will be back on the rise.
“Simply put, it’s terrifying,” Fischer told me. “In his tenure as head of ERO, he was the mastermind behind raids on families, swift deportations of asylum seekers back to harm, and the draconian detention and deportation regime under Obama. Immigration should be about more than removing people, but this is a strong signal from the Trump administration that the priority is getting immigrants out.”