An Overview of U.S. Detention Centers–The Oppression of Children Detained

Pasé 5 días en la perrera. Estuve enferma, pedí ayuda y no me la brindaron. Habían bebés llorando, niños enfermos. Sólo nos bañamos 1 vez desde que llegamos. La pasé muy mal, nos trataban mal, nos levantaban a cada rato.” This testimony from an immigrant child who was detained in the U.S. reveals the horrific reality that many children endure in detention centers. 

This account is one of many shared with Univision, the second largest provider of Spanish-language content in the United States. The immigration editing team of Univision contacted a group of migrant minors between the ages of 13 and 17 and asked them to relate, anonymously and in handwriting, their experiences in the “ice boxes” or “kennels;” labels commonly used to refer to the warehouses located in the Border Patrol barracks. The minors had arrived at the southern border in search of asylum after fleeing their countries due to violence and extreme poverty. 

The handwritten notes shared by children decry horrible conditions and neglect. They also reveal details, such as being detained for long periods of time extending the protective guidelines listed in the Flores Accord, which governs the detention conditions for minor immigrants who are apprehended at the southern border of the United States. 

These notes shared with Univision were written by children who had walked days on their own to seek asylum in the United States, declares Jorge Cacino, immigration editor with Univision. Unfortunately, these are just some of the many testimonies from immigrant children who survived appalling conditions in U.S. detention centers. 

The children’s testimonies demand answers and raise questions about the welfare, whereabouts and data available to the public who are concerned about what happened these children. How many and where are children detained today? How has detention affected them, and what does the future hold for them?

Detention Centers Under U.S. Law

Detention centers are institutions that hold people in detention for short periods of time. The detained include undocumented immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, people awaiting trial or sentence, and youthful offenders. 

The centers operate under the U.S. federal government and are run by the Department of Homeland Security which is responsible for the safety and security of the U.S. and works on securing borders, anti-terrorism, immigration, and customs.


MCALLEN, TX – SEPTEMBER 08: A boy from Honduras watches a movie at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol on September 8, 2014 in McAllen, Texas. The Border Patrol opened the holding center to temporarily house the children after tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed the border illegally into the United States during the spring and summer. Although the flow of underage immigrants has since slowed greatly, thousands of them are now housed in centers around the United States as immigration courts process their cases. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)


Under the Department of Homeland security operate the agencies of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

ICE was established in 2003 by President George W. Bush in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. ICE’s mission was established then to protect the United States from cross-border crime and illegal immigration that could threaten national security and safety. 

CBP is the largest federal law enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security and is in charge of protecting the U.S. from dangerous threats and materials while enabling trade and travel. 

According to United States law, immigrants are detained when they enter the country illegally; they overstay the time approved through their VISA, or commit crimes that give the U.S. reasonable doubt that they pose a threat to the country. 

Many asylum seekers and refugees are turned away at the U.S. borders, regardless of where they come from or why they are seeking refuge or asylum, without being apprehended in detention or given a chance to apply for citizenship. 

With more than 500,000 immigrants detained under ICE or CBP custody in 2019, rules and regulations were constructed by ICE  to adjust to the large influx of immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees

In 2011, the Performance-Based National Detention Standards 2011 (PBNDS 2011) was created to establish consistent conditions of confinement while maintaining a safe and secure environment for staff and detainees. 

According to the PBNDS 2011, there are seven categories which state the rules and regulations staff should follow to ensure the well-being of immigrants in detention centers, and they are as follows: 

  • safety
  • security
  • order
  • care
  • activities
  • justice
  • administration and management

Some standard regulations are listed in the PBNDS and include: 

  • on-call medical care 24 hours per day
  • right to legal representation
  • rights to a safe environment
  • right to personal hygiene products

Although there are rules and standards in place, these are not always followed and sometimes the guidelines are completely ignored

In order to fully understand the complexity of United States detention centers, Latina Republic had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Suarez Galeano, the organizing director of Detention Watch Network who shared her knowledge on the conditions in detention centers and provided her testimony on becoming an advocate for immigrants in detention centers:

I lived in Mexico for a little bit and I organized mostly with indigenous communities and resistance over there. Then I moved here to Chicago to do my graduate school and in the midst of that became involved with immigrants rights organizing as an educator for adults in an adult high school. In that context Trump was elected and I felt compelled to engage in that particular work because I myself am an immigrant and so are my parents. 

Detention Watch Network

Detention Watch Network’s“#CommunitiesNotCages”campaign which amplifies local organizing communities coming together to stop the expansion and abolish U.S. detentioncenters. Source: Detention WatchNetwork | Rommy Sobrado-Torrico

Detention Watch Network works through collective advocacy and communication to accomplish their goal of abolishing immigration detention in the United States. According to the Detention Watch Network, there are currently over 200 jails in the country that detain people for immigration purposes. 

County jails predominantly have agreements with ICE “to cage people for them,” states Suarez Galeano. With over 200 detention facilities, over 500,000 immigrants were detained under United States immigration detention in 2019, confirms the CATO Institute. Of those 500,000 immigrants, almost 70,000 of those are children aged 17 and under. 

Part of Detention Watch’s campaigns to abolish detention includes: #defundhate and #CommunitiesNotCages. The organization provides up to date resources to trace immigration detention expansion through an interactive map that depicts the massive expansion of the immigration detention system. See the map key for more information on the top left hand corner.


Detention Centers By The Numbers


Immigrants are gathered outside a detention facility in El Paso, Texas. Source: Time Magazine | Mark Lambie


Our conversation with Detention Watch explored the topic of detention centers as profitable businesses. Suarez Galeano provided details on the sources of profit:

Caging people is a very profitable business. Detention centers are run on the labor of people who are caged there. A lot of people who are currently detained work for a dollar or less a day. The U.S. government pays on average around $130 per adult person in a cage per day and about $300 for families that are currently caged per day. People experience fatally flawed medical care in detention, that’s why there’s so many deaths inside detention because people will be given water when they need high blood pressure medicine or they may have a seizure. So there’s a lot of extraction of profit there and at the end of the day, it’s our own tax dollars that are funding all of this. 

As of 2019, Freedom For Immigrants reports that Texas holds the record for the highest number of immigrants detained per day with a number of 14,481. Following Texas are Louisiana (4,415), Arizona (4,405), California (4,353), and Georgia (3,719). Freedom for Immigrants own interactive map depicts immigrant detention center data from all over the United States including the top 10 immigrant detention centers that hold people the longest. 

The average length of detention is highest in the Orange County Jail located in New York which the average time stated as 107 days. Comparing the previous Obama Administration to the current Trump Administration, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center released a dataset showing that the Trump Administration has held immigrants in jails and prisons for longer periods of time than the Obama Administration.

Chart depicting the average length of detention from the top 10 detention facilities that hold detainees the longest. Source: Freedom For Immigrants.


Record numbers of deaths have been recorded under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. According to the CATO Institute, 193 immigrants have died in United States detention centers between the years of 2004 to 2019. Detention Watch Center commented on immigrants who had died under custody:

Last year from what I recall, fiscal year 2019 sought 10 people die in ICE custody. We focus specifically in ICE custody because that’s the majority of immigrants who are detained, and because ICE is actually required to report when someone dies in their custody. In terms of the number of people that have died in ICE custody this year, we’ve already seen 15 people die this fiscal year which is five more than the number of people who died last year in ICE custody.


Felipe Gomez Alonzo and Jakelin Ameri Rosmery Caal Maquin, two Guatemalan immigrant children who died under U.S. custody. Source: National Catholic Reporter.


Under the Trump Administration, 24 immigrants have died as of July 2019, not counting the four deaths that happened outside detention centers and the five children who died in custody of other federal agencies.

Media Reporting on Detention Centers

It is difficult to recall the last time the mainstream media covered a story of an immigrant child dying under ICE custody.  According to the Detention Watch Network, these reports are often skewed to absolve ICE or the CBP’s from fault:

Part of it has to do with how elected officials have treated immigration as a toxic topic that they don’t want to move on and there’s a lot of pressure on. The conversation should not just be centered on detention centers but on cages in general because a number of immigrants are caged in county jails.

President Trump has repeatedly called out many media outlets for falsely reporting on detention centers in the United States or stating that the story is being exaggerated.



However, these reports  are far from exaggerated accounts. It is unpleasant to hear stories of mothers losing babies, children starving refusing to eat expired food, or reporting that they were given aspirins for serious medical problems, yet these cases have taken place under the United States Department of Homeland Security. 

By reporting on accurate statistics and testimonies from immigrants from all over the country, the media can raise awareness of the urgency for a change in the U.S. detention system and promote the abolition of institutions like ICE. 

Separation of Families

The practice of separating immigrant families in the United States has been critiqued for tearing families apart.  A child who was separated from his family detailed how he felt when separated from his father: “Why did you leave me?

The separation of immigrant families became a nationwide debate when President Trump and his administration established the “zero tolerance” policy, ordering the persecution of all parents crossing the border with children, whether crossing through a port of entry or not. 

According to America’s Voice, more than 2,300 children were separated from their parents in the U.S.-Mexico border and sent to separate detention center facilities to be detained in cages.


2-year-old Honduran child cries as her mother is detained near the U.S.-Mexico border. Source: New York Times.


Although in 2018 federal courts blocked the “zero-tolerance” policy and ordered for the children to be reunited with their parents, the Trump Administration continues to separate families both at the borders and detention center facilities. 

The children that were initially separated from their parents at the start of the “zero-tolerance” policy are either still separated from their parents or were reunited with their parents but were sent back to their home country leaving anything they’ve worked for in the U.S. behind. 

Today, children continue to be separated from their families inside detention centers and often have no idea what happened to their loved ones, or what their future holds for seeing them again. 

Terrible Sleeping Standards

While detained, children are forced to sleep on the cold floor and aren’t provided with blankets. Instead, they receive an aluminum blanket like those used by NASA for space exploration or used by the military in emergency situations. 

A seventeen year old pregnant woman recalled the time she was forced to sleep on the floor: “Sleeping on the floor is very painful for my back and hips. I think the guards act this way to punish us.” 

Detention centers are given the name “las hieleras”, which translates to freezers. The cold temperatures in detention facilities lead to immigrant children experiencing sleep deprivation. 

Children are awakened in the middle of the night by the guards for security checks, disrupting the children’s sleep. Bright lights illuminate the detention facilities which also causes the children to be sleep deprived. Lack of sleep among children leads to other problems like stress and mental health problems.  


Immigrants inside U.S. detention center sleeping with mylar blankets. Source: U.S.A. Today


Inhumane Treatment of Minors

The small spaces that children occupy are smaller than an average room, leading the children to feel cramped and confined, as staff members overfill small rooms due to the overcrowding of immigrant detainees.

The overpopulation of detention centers has led to children experiencing hunger or thirst due to shortage of food or water. When children arrive at the centers they are usually stripped of any belongings they have, including their extra clothes they brought with them.

Appalling Sanitation Standards

The sanitation standards are appalling. Children are forced to use filthy toilets, lack access to soap or shampoo in the bathrooms, and are given only one single-use toothbrush for their entire stay. Children have stated they were given dirty water and  that babies, some who are newborns, were being fed with unwashed bottles and mothers asking for but not receiving enough diapers to change their young children.


Migrants outside detention center in McAllen, Texas with reflective blankets. Source: New York Times.


Inadequate Health Care

In terms of health, children have reported being denied any access to medical professionals, and being turned away even when throwing up or having trouble breathing. Minors’ accounts tell of going to a detention staff member for an illness and receiving a bottle of water or an aspirin. 

Some children have pre-existing conditions prior to entering the detention facilities placing their health at great risk. Without access to the children’s medical records and the denial of adequate health care, children have reportedly died under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ICE or CBP facilities. 

Sexual Assault/Mental Health

Something that is heavily overlooked in the media and absent from general knowledge has to do with sexual assaults in ICE or CBP facilities. Since children are forced to sleep in rooms with unrelated adults, the chance for a child to be sexually assaulted has been very high. 

Not only have children been sexaully assaulted by other detainees but there have also been cases where the staff of the detention facility have also sexually assaulted the children who were detained. Many children have been groped or raped in these facilities and it is a shame that strict security measures are not in place to prevent cruel acts of assault in detention centers.

Chart depicting the number of reported sexual abuse allegations involving detainment staff against migrant children. (2018) Source: USA Today | George Petras.


The mental health of children in detention centers has also been dismissed. According to Detention Watch Network, children in detention centers are not provided with therapists or counselors. Mental health professionals are heavily needed in detention centers, especially for children. 

Minors are being thrown into these facilities and often have no idea why they are being detained. Children have told immigration attorneys that they are afraid of misbehaving and being sent back to their country, causing them to live in constant fear while detained. 

Absence of Legal Assistance

With all of the injustices that immigrant children face, legal assistance from immigration lawyers is critical to the protection and release of the children from detention centers. With legal assistance, the future of the children in detention centers can be changed. Unfortunately not many children are provided with legal assistance. 

A great number of families are unable to afford immigration lawyers. Around 90% of immigrants in detention lack legal representation, states Detention Watch Network.


A Honduran immigrant child taken into custody along with his father near the U.S.-Mexico Border. Source: Politico | John Moore.


With no legal assistance, the children and families’ defense looks bleak.  Detention Watch Network states, 

People who are in immigrant detention do not have access to any sort of council, in terms of if you are a U.S citizen or resident and you’re arrested for any reason, you have the right to a public defender. People in immigration detention do not have that right.

Changing the Future of Immigrant Children

Being aware of the injustices and oppression experienced by children in U.S. detention centers is the first step to begin the conversation that addresses these injustices and enact change. 

Many immigrant children’s voices from across the world are being silenced. Awareness, collaboration and action will be needed to change current detention policies under U.S. immigration law. 

Most urgently, change is needed to protect and defend the rights to legal representation and healthcare access for children who are detained. Ultimately, detention reform should center on the abolition of inhumane institutions like ICE and CBP that oppress immigrant children and keep them locked in cages within unthinkable standards. 

Immigrant children have a right to live happy and fulfilled lives in the United States. 


To connect with Detention Watch Network, follow them on social media or visit their website for more information.

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Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Joshua Lott from Minnesota Public Radio

Valeria Lopez | University of California, Riverside
Valeria is a junior pursuing a major in Political Science/Law and Society with a minor in international relations. Coming from two immigrant parents who were born in Guadalajara, Jalisco Mexico, she has seen first hand the hardships immigrants face when moving to America. Seeing the difficulties immigrants deal with on a daily basis in America, it has inspired her to pursue a career as an immigration and civil rights lawyer. She has a passion for fighting for the rights of not only immigrants but for individuals who face racial and social injustices. She wishes to raise awareness about immigration issues such as the inhumane conditions children and adults experience in detention camps as well as helping families attain their documents to be able to work and live in the U.S. In the future she would like to start a charity that helps immigrant families overcome the difficulties that come along with living in a foreign country that is not always welcoming to immigrants. Valeria hopes that her work as an immigration writer will allow her to spread the stories of immigrants and that her career in immigration and civil rights law will allow her to create change for the Latino immigrant community.