In June 2019, a lawyer stood before a judge to argue that the U.S. government is obligated to provide asylum-seeking detainees with a bar of soap and a toothbrush. The law calls for detention centers that are “safe and sanitary.” At the time, thousands of detained refugees lacked those basic necessities. The court determined that toiletries could indeed be included under that standard. Reports of this hearing caused a public outcry. Many Americans were shocked to learn, from this story and others like it, how the federal government had been dealing with the influx of refugees and migrants at the southern border.
The argument over who built the cages that many asylum-seekers were herded into remains one of the more disturbing episodes of the Trump era. In fact, the cages were built before Trump’s election. But the Trump administration, and in particular former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, exploited existing rules in order to fill those cages with an unprecedented number of refugees, separating families in the process. They hoped this policy would deter future refugees. After one hundred days in office, the Biden administration has a mixed record of improving conditions inside the detainment facilities. He had waffled on his promises to raise the number of refugees accepted each year into the United States, a measure that would alleviate the congestion within those facilities. The arrival of unaccompanied minors at the border adds a new dimension to the problem, and in recent weeks the Biden administration has transferred many such detainees from crowded facilities run by the Department of Homeland Security to ones run by the Department of Health and Human Services, with little improvement in living conditions.
A year ago, I sat down with Maria (not her real name), a Salvadoran woman in her mid-twenties who crossed the border into Texas about a month before the infamous soap-and-toothbrush hearing. After a day of roaming the desert, Maria was picked up by Border Patrol. For the next six months, she would be held in four different detainment facilities. She asked to share her story, in the hope that those who heard it would have a better moral grasp of the real situation at the border.
After being brought into custody, ID’ed, and registered, Maria was taken to what detainees call la perrera, or “the dog pound.” The name refers to a type of detention facility that houses several chain-link cages that look like kennels. More than a hundred detainees are kept in each of the cages for days or weeks at a time. Border agents took Maria’s belongings and gave her some clothes to wear. She arrived from her journey “dirty, scraped,” but could barely wash. She couldn’t find toilet paper or sanitary napkins in the bathroom. Though tired from her journey, she found it difficult to sleep. There wasn’t much room to lie down in her crowded cage. Someone was always talking or sobbing. Guards would make blaring announcements via megaphone. They might enter at any time, day or night, escorting people away or bringing new people in. The stench was often overwhelming; the guards who patrolled the perimeter covered their noses with facemasks. (This was before the pandemic.) The food was always the same: a mortadella sandwich, delivered three times a day: 10 a.m., 5 p.m., and 1 a.m. The 1 a.m. meal Maria considered a sort of punishment—one more thing that made it impossible to sleep.