A firsthand look at the horrors of immigration detention

A firsthand look at the horrors of immigration detention

Originally published by The Washington Post

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.”

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