DILLEY, Tex. — Hellen Guerrero left El Salvador only because she felt she had to. Her country was collapsing after the breakdown of a truce between two of its most powerful gangs, and one of them, MS-13 — famous for its deadly machete hackings — was after her.
For years, Guerrero, 30, had visited nearby schools with police officers, preaching against violence. Then, one of the officers she worked with was killed. Soon after, members of the same gang showed up at her house.
“You have 24 hours to hand over your daughter,” who is 13, Guerrero remembers them saying.
Guerrero sold off as many belongings as she could. She raised $8,000 to pay coyotes. With her daughter and husband, she was out of El Salvador the next day. At the U.S. border, she turned herself in to authorities and was taken along with her daughter to a family detention center here in Texas.
The same forces that pushed Guerrero from her country pose a monumental challenge for the United States in its mission to cut down the flow of Central Americans streaming across the Rio Grande. The U.S. has invested heavily in new family detention centers designed as deterrents for female and child asylum seekers. But the prospect of detention has so far failed to change the calculus for most migrant Central Americans, who ultimately decide to leave because of acute fears about safety in what are the Western Hemisphere’s most violent places.
Interviews with detainees, as well academic studies and accounts from a dozen lawyers and activists who’ve worked with asylum seekers, reveal a key reason that U.S. efforts to slow the arrivals haven't been successful: Relative to the dangers Central Americans face at home, short-term detention in the United States lacks much bite.
Migrants, merely in making the journey, are taking the risk that they might be detained by Mexican authorities, raped by gang members or robbed by cartels. One woman, Jenyfer Espinal Almendarez, 30, from Honduras, described a perilous bus ride through winding roads with a crack-addled driver behind the wheel. When Almendarez arrived at a detention center in Texas, it was the least imperiled she’d felt in weeks.
“It feels like I’m on vacation,” she said in an interview at the facility. “Here, you are worried about your [legal] case. But you are not worried about your safety.”
A report released in February by the American Immigration Council, using data compiled by Vanderbilt University, found that about two-thirds of Honduran residents surveyed knew within weeks of the U.S.’s family detention ramp-up about the increasingly stringent treatment of migrants. Compared with a year earlier, some 80 percent felt that the risk of deportation had grown. More than 85 percent felt that crossing the border had become more difficult. (The United States, in 2014, had launched an ad campaign in Central America publicizing the dangers of the journey.)
But that knowledge, the study found, “did not have any significant effect on whether or not they intended to migrate.” A far more critical factor, the report said, was whether a person had recently been the victim of a crime.
“There’s no question that deterrence has not been effective, and why would it be if you’re fleeing for your life?” said Michelle Brane, director of the migrant rights program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, who was not involved with the study. “If people are trapped in a burning house or a burning apartment, they’re going to find a way out.”
In recent months, the Obama administration has tried to find other ways to reduce the flow, expanding opportunities for Central Americans to apply for refugee status without leaving their own countries. But those programs remain small-scale.
When the largest of the new family detention centers was created two years ago, it was designed to be a relatively muscular show of force. Women who arrived at the South Texas Family Residential Center were held for months at a time. They were denied bond, even when lawyers argued they didn’t pose flight risks.
But several court decisions have forced the government to significantly shorten those stays and, in most instances, women are released with ankle monitors well before their asylum cases are resolved. As a result, the facility in Dilley is instead a de facto processing center — a holding pen at the edge of a 4,000-person town with a Days Inn, a Dairy Queen and a lone park with a statue of a watermelon with a wedge carved out of it.
ICE and Homeland Security officials have been forced by those court decisions to back away from their original rationale for family detention. They now say the facilities are used not for deterrence, but rather as a holding spot where the government can process the newcomers, providing health treatment and helping them with their initial immigration obligations.
Women say that staying in Dilley can be by turns frustrating and comfortable. The facility has basketball courts but almost no trees. It is divided into “neighborhoods” with names such as “Yellow Frog” and “Red Parrot,” but a single room can hold up to 12 people who are interrupted by middle-of-the-night bed checks. It has 24-hour medical care — but with wait times that can exceed five hours, according to former residents, and where nurses prescribe a mixture of water and honey for a wide variety of ailments.
The greatest criticism of the facility, according to lawyers and several former residents, is that staff members sometimes send both the mother and child to a “cold room” — a version of solitary confinement — when children misbehave. They can be held there for several hours.
Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the center, declined to answer questions about conditions at Dilley and said the facility was stocked with “state-of-the-art classrooms” and more than 25,000 library books.
“The facility houses a unique population requiring additional staff and accommodations,” it said in a statement. “CCA does not play any role in the enforcement of detention policies. We house only the detainees that are assigned to us by our government partners.”
The U.S.’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said it is satisfied with conditions at the facility. Several lawyers said that conditions at the South Texas Family Residential Center are improved from an earlier family detention center used between 2006 and 2009, and that women are provided with clothing, laundry services and even fitness classes. Children, including Guerrero’s daughter, attend school for several hours per day.
Guerrero said the greatest price of migration was leaving behind what had been — at least until May — a fairly stable life in El Salvador. She’d gotten a college degree in computer science. Her husband worked at a factory making industrial materials. They’d been together for 14 years. They’d never spent a night apart.
But then they arrived at the border and her husband, Jose, was sent to an immigrant detention center for men. Guerrero didn’t know which one. Her daughter cried most days. But Guerrero said that was better than the alternative of watching her daughter get handed over to a gang.
“A lot of the time when people disobey these gangs, bodies turned up burned,” Guerrero said. “Your kid is your whole life.”