We arrived at a drab and nondescript building near Ursula Avenue and Ware Road in McAllen, Tex., by relying on vague directions and word of mouth. No one would imagine that this building is the epicenter of the current immigration detention crisis. The 77,000-square-foot facility is framed by palm trees and surrounded by warehouses. It does not have an official address, nor does it show up on Google maps. As historians who study race, detention and migration, we came here because we wanted to understand what is happening at ground zero.
Life in McAllen remains largely unchanged despite the national outcry that has ensued. Photographs and audio of inconsolable children crying for their parents, housed in what Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) described as “cages” and “dog kennels,” have shocked the nation. Pediatricians and child psychologists reported that these conditions would lead to long-term trauma and attachment disorders.
How could it be possible for everyday life to remain the same for most of McAllen’s residents amid this humanitarian crisis?
In part, it’s because those cages are everyday life in McAllen. Throughout the Rio Grande Valley, undocumented migrants are intimately familiar with the horrors of detention. Enforcement of a “zero-tolerance” policy that deliberately separated children from their parents added one more layer of inhumanity to an already inhumane practice.
A Latina woman explained that many people in her community are not protesting because detention has long been a fact of life in the Valley. “It’s nothing new,” a white man told us. “This is the border of Mexico. We have laws. When people cross the border, they break our laws. We need to process them. What else are we supposed to do?”
Detention seems like the only option to this man and many others, in part because of its long history in the United States, even far from the southern border.
Opened in 1892, Ellis Island Immigration Station — the iconic site of hope and opportunity that welcomed “poor, huddled masses” — was the first dedicated immigration detention facility in the world. It operated for nearly 60 years, closing in 1954 after the federal government reassessed the need for detention. The Supreme Court reaffirmed this change in 1958 in the landmark case Leng May Ma v. Barber, by ruling that “needless confinement” could be avoided through parole and asserting that “physical detention of aliens is now the exception, not the rule.”
Detention, the court argued, did not “reflect the humane qualities of an enlightened civilization.”
The understanding that there were more humane alternatives to detention evaporated in the 1980s. The Reagan administration renewed this practice, citing the fears about mass migrations from Central America, Cuba and Haiti. In an interview on Dec. 3, 1981, President Ronald Reagan said, “In 1980 — the administration then was caught by the great exodus from Cuba. … No planning had been made for that. We’re also looking at available sites and facilities for a detention center for those who are apprehended and are illegal aliens, who will probably be returned.”
Since then, the practice of detaining immigrants has expanded exponentially. Data released by the federal government shows that every day, 15,852 people are detained in Texas, 6,527 in California, 3,869 in Arizona, 3,717 in Georgia and 3,143 in Louisiana. That’s more than 33,000 people in five states every day. It’s no surprise that this practice seems normal.
In McAllen, this normalcy is reinforced by the intimacy between the town and the Border Patrol. Detention is big business for the town. In 2014, the Rio Grande Valley Sector employed more than 3,000 agents. Almost everyone we met knew Border Patrol agents. They are spouses, friends and neighbors. This familiarity creates an incentive to look the other way: Many people do not want to acknowledge that their loved ones are engaged in the violence of detention. Several people told us that the crisis has been “overblown.”
Most disturbing of all, though, is that the very practice of detention renders the men, women and children in the facilities as faceless and nameless as the drab buildings in which they are held. Only a few politicians and clergy members have been granted access to the facilities. There is little information available about who is inside, about their joys, fears, suffering, hope — all of the things that make us human.
President Trump contributes to the dehumanization of immigrants through claims that they are criminals who “infest the country.” “These aren’t people. These are animals,” Trump said in May. Just Sunday he added that we couldn’t “allow all of these people to invade our country.” This language makes detention seem necessary, even laudable.
But this practice is not “normal.” Just because family separation has ended, we cannot lose sight of the inhumanity of detention — a process that the federal government once severely curtailed, and could do so again.
Every day, buses arrive at the McAllen bus station. As one pulls in, we wave at a child who can wave back only through the spaces between the bars that cover the windows. About 20 women — most of them holding children, their legs weighed down with ankle bracelets — descend from the bus. They carry nothing else but a small plastic bag with a few belongings.
These women are known as the “lucky ones.” They did not get separated from their children and were allowed to leave the detention center, usually after only a few days. Now they are on their way to new homes — in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Virginia and beyond — where family members await them. They don’t know whether they will be allowed to stay or whether they will be deported.
The scene at the bus station is overwhelming. The joys, fears, suffering and hopes of the women are raw and palpable. One woman cannot hold back tears as she tells her story. After her mother passed away, she took care of her younger siblings. It was for them and for her daughter that she risked everything to make the harrowing journey from El Salvador to the United States. But because she was not the official legal guardian of her siblings, she had to leave them behind at the detention center. After asking for permission, she was allowed only to wave goodbye.
Another woman is on her way to New York, a city that she knew to be so large that it scared her. She became overwhelmed when she tried to describe the traumatic passage from Honduras to the United States. In the end, all she could utter was, “It was horrible.”
We also meet Alan, a vibrant young boy who wants nothing more than to play. For a moment, we forget where we are as we exchange funny faces and make each other laugh. He giggles as he tries to play with our glasses and then refuses to give us high-fives. His joy is contagious, and some of the other children and women laugh and smile along. Just the night before, Alan had slept under a thin Mylar blanket at a detention center.
These are the lucky ones.
Others remain in detention, a procedure that Trump has promised to expand.
With all eyes on McAllen, now is the time to ensure that detention never seems normal. For all those ensnared in detention centers — countless children like Alan and thousands of adults — we must keep our eyes wide open. We cannot blink.