‘Drink more water’: Horror stories from the medical ward of a Texas immigration detention center

A mother with two broken fingers walked into the doctors office at the South Texas Family Residential Center and walked out only with instructions to “tomar más agua” (drink more water). A nine-year-old boy who shrieked during the night from the pain of a dislocated shoulder was told by doctors to do the same thing. Two hundred and fifty children were accidentally given the wrong vaccine.

These claims, along with dozens of other complaints of medical neglect, are outlined in 28 medical affidavits obtained by Fusion from a brand new family detention center that holds about 2,000 migrant mothers and children fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States. The affidavits paint a picture of a facility where medical professionals are severely understaffed, wait times for care can exceed six hours, and children and mothers are routinely turned away without treatment.

On Monday evening, ICE spokesperson Richard Rocha said that family detention facilities would finally begin releasing some immigrant women and children who had passed the first step of the asylum process. The promise, which comes nearly a month after the policy change was announced, is too little, too late, according to advocates. The agency says all family detention facilities will remain in operation.


Although the detention facility falls under the watch of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is operated by a for-profit prison company Corrections Corp of America (CCA), they’d prefer if you call it a “residential center.”

Detainees are issued jeans and monochromatic t-shirts instead of jumpsuits. Prison pods go by cutesy names like Yellow Frog, Blue Butterfly, and Brown Bear. Unlike other facilities, children and their mothers are allowed to keep their shoe laces.

The detention facility's playground sat empty when members of Congress visited last month.AP

The detention facility's playground sat empty when members of Congress visited last month.

Despite CCA’s efforts to soften the edges of the prison-like facility, which is made up of a series of cabins and trailers, detainees like Yancy Maricela Mejia Guerra say there’s no two ways around it.

“People who say this is not a prison are lying,” Guerra, who has been at Dilley for nearly two months, told Fusion from a detention center phone. “It’s a prison for us and a prison for our children, but none of us are criminals.”

In fact, almost all of the detainees at Dilley are asylum seekers—most escaping gang violence, sexual abuse, or domestic violence in Central America. Many of the mothers turned themselves in at the border, asking for help. About 9 out of 10 mothers detained there have passed the first step in the asylum process, called a credible fear interview, according to lawyers at the facility. The average age for children is 9 years old, ICE says.


In the past, asylum seekers who didn’t pose a public safety threat have generally been allowed to leave on bond or on an ankle bracelet. But late last year, the Obama administration expanded the use of family detention to hold nearly 3,000 women and children a night in three family facilities across the country. During a surge in border crossings last year, the facility was presented in part as a means of deterring other families from coming to the United States.

“Frankly, we want to send a message that our border is not open to illegal migration, and if you come here, you should not expect to simply be released,” Secretary Jeh Johnson said when the South Texas facility opened its gates in December of last year.


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After lawyers filed a lawsuit against the agency, ICE announced they would no longer detain mothers and children solely for the purpose of deterring future families from coming. Late Monday, ICE announced the agency would start releasing women who passed their “credible fear” interviews. Still, Dilley, the largest family detention facility in the world, will remain open, as will the two other family facilities.

“A year ago we would never have accepted this minor shift in policy towards asylum seekers, nor would we have celebrated this move by the Administration,” said Jonathan Ryan, the Executive Director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). “Any length of detention is too long.”


Yancy Maricela Mejia Guerra, 20, goes to bed every night with a CCA-issued sock over her left hand. She says her wrist was dislocated and her fingers broken when kidnapped by a gang in El Salvador. Her pinky and ring finger splay out in different directions and the pain is so intense she has trouble sleeping.

Guerra, along with five other Dilley detainees who spoke to Fusion on detention center phones, said only water was prescribed as treatment for serious ailments. More than half of the mothers who testified to medical neglect through affidavits took issue with long wait times to see medical staff, which ranged between two and six hours. Numerous mothers claimed in affidavits that they were turned away from the medical ward altogether.

Mothers and children from Honduras and El Salvador seeking refuge in the U.S.AP

Mothers and children from Honduras and El Salvador seeking refuge in the U.S.

“Water, water, water, all they give us is water,” said detainee Sarai Estrada, who says she was unable to obtain medicine prescribed to her after a surgery. “I don’t think water alone can cure everything. Sometimes I think we need pills or real medicine.”

Immigration authorities declined to comment on specific medical claims but said that “in addition to the individualized treatment received, residents are also routinely reminded to drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.”

The agency admitted last week that hundreds of children were mistakenly given the adult version of the Hepatitis A vaccine but said that “no significant adverse reactions occurred.” The agency “is conducting a thorough review of the circumstances that led to this event and will make all necessary changes to prevent similar occurrences in the future,” spokesperson Richard Rocha told Fusion.

Digna Molina says she was awoken without warning at 4 a.m. last week and told her children needed to be vaccinated. Her four-year-old daughter developed a severe earache the following day, which Molina fears is a result of the incorrect vaccine.

“I was scared to bring her back to the doctors after that,” said Molina.


Gladys Pina, like the women in Dilley, fled Central America to seek asylum in the U.S. with her child.

ICE spokesperson Richard Rocha told Fusion the agency takes the health of detainees seriously, and that its standards “are designed to provide onsite and remote specialized services as needed for all residents.” Rocha also said that medical professionals “develop individualized courses of treatment for all ailments reported by residents” and are able to provide “prescription or over the counter drugs.”

Some mothers say they are scared to complain to the same agency that has power over their release.

“We have a fear of complaining, we are scared of saying our children aren’t doing well, because we’re scared of being deported,” said one mother over a detention center phone who asked that her name not be used for this story.


Every day when Aseem Mehta walks into the trailer where attorneys meet with mothers and children, he is greeted by a white board that lists CCA’s closing stock price from the day before.

“You’re reminded every morning when you walk in that this is for profit, and that this whole system is being traded on an international market and this is a global commodity,” said Mehta, the Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow with the CARA Pro Bono Project, a collaboration between numerous legal aid groups. “It’s pretty jarring.”

U.S. taxpayers paid somewhere around $260 million to the Corrections Corp of America for the first year of the facility’s operations. That breaks out to nearly $296 a day per detainee, according to the ICE. While private prison companies don’t publish how much they make on each contract, equity research firm CRT Capital Group estimates that American private prison companies make up to 15% in profit from youth facilities. At Dilley, that would be approximately $90,000 a day in profit for CCA.

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Many guards at the facility have been transferred from neighboring for-profit prisons, and from CCA facilities in Florida and Georgia, according to legal aid workers at Dilley.

“They’ve been working in prisons for many years and now they’re working in a playroom where they’re giving cookies to a child,” said Mehta, one of the few long-term legal workers at Dilley.

“The sheer absurdity of all of this continues to shock me daily…If I weren’t going to this facility each day, I would not believe it’s real,” he said.

Mehta, and the organization he works for, are firmly in agreement that ICE is unable to humanely house children, citing recent medical failures as evidence of agency’s incompetence.

“ICE does not have the ability to care for women and children. It’s not their domain, and its not what they have competency to do,” said Mehta. “ The medical issue is just one very clear, very pressing example of the way ICE denies women and children care.”

The average age of children at Dilley is 9 years old.

The average age of children at Dilley is 9 years old.


While children wait for their mothers to talk to lawyers and legal aids, they are usually watching kids’ movies dubbed in Spanish, namely Rio or Frozen. The children of Dilley, like children everywhere, have taken to singing Frozen’s iconic song “Let It Go.”

The Spanish-language refrain to the song “Libre soy! Libre soy!” translates to “I am free! I am free!” It’s an irony that makes the adults of Dilley uneasy. Mehta recalls one mother responding to her singing child under her breath: “Pero no lo somos” (But we aren’t).

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Ben Johnson, the executive director of the American Immigration Council, has called for ICE to abandon the family detention idea entirely and “return to a more humane and cost effective system where families are released, on alternatives when necessary, to ensure the safety and well-being of the children.”

Dr. Luis Zayas, the dean of the social work school at the University of Texas at Austin has worked with nearly 30 children who have been detained in ICE’s family detention system over the last year. He says detention damages children psychologically.

“Among the many devastating factors, when children see their mothers so vulnerable to the authority of the guards, and in some cases, the way their mothers are mistreated, children just don’t feel safe,” Zayas told Fusion.

U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren of California says when she visited the Karnes family detention facility with a group of House Democrats in late June “a hundred women” ran up to her, “holding their toddlers, weeping, saying ‘please get us out of here.’”
After the visit to Dilley, Lofgren said she and her peers in Congress were “infused with a sense of urgency to change this.”

“I think we can all agree, those children have done absolutely nothing wrong,” said Lofgren. “This does not comport with American values.”


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