This is a two-part article. Part I, below, introduces a refugee situation that is largely unknown to the general public, concerning victims of systematic cultural and domestic violence fleeing Latin and South American countries . Part II, Lasting Emotional Injury: the Effects of Machismo will appear separately and reflect on the culturally sanctioned perpetration of violence against woman from Latin America who become refugees in the US.


While Europe struggles desperately to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, the refugee crisis we have here in the United States is increasing. Thousands of people from Central America (especially from the three “Northern Triangle” countries, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), many of them mothers with children, many of them children alone, are coming to the United States largely through our southern borders. Although more such people came in 2014 than in any year thus far, in 2016 an even greater number is expected. They come because violent drug-related gangs have taken over in their home countries, where women above all are victimized, especially if they are alone or unlucky enough to have an abusive partner. Under these circumstances, no one will offer help, least of all the police; the police, if not collaborating with drug cartels, will inevitably side with the man. The culture of machismo — which holds sway in that world — means that the man’s desire is always protected. As a result, the situation for women from Central America is now so dire that, in October 2015, a report with the title Women on the Run was issued by António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (See also Children on the Run, published in 2014 by the same organization). In this report, he tells us that Central American women “face a startling degree of violence that has a devastating impact on their daily lives.” In issuing his report, Commissioner Guterres has designated these women refugees, by implication, making this crisis a humanitarian one. A refugee, according to the Geneva Convention (1954) and its later revision, known as the Protocol (1967), is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to his (her) country of origin” because of a “well-founded fear” of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” In contrast, immigrants are considered those who leave home under less pressure, presumably to better their economic or educational circumstances.

<p<Presently, when they reach the U.S. with their children, many of the women referred to by Commissioner Guterres are being housed in three prison facilities, two in Texas, one in Pennsylvania. These are owned by the private, profit-making Corrections Corporation of America, which collaborates with Homeland Security and ICE, (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) [1]. Once incarcerated in one of these facilities, inmates discover that they will be deported unless their stories confirm that their fear is “well founded.” [2] In addition, they must be able to establish a bond: they must be able to make contact with someone they know in the U.S. who will take them in and will also cover their transportation costs. Since nearly all of the women have either relatives or friends living in the United States, this is relatively easy to establish.

Appropriately, in the spring of this past summer (2015), federal Judge Dolly Gee ruled these prison facilities “inhumane and incompatible with a fair and just legal process” because they do not comply with an earlier ruling, the 1997 Flores settlement , which requires that “juveniles be held in the least restrictive setting appropriate to their age and special needs.” According to Flores, children belong “in a non-secure facility licensed to care for dependents, as opposed to delinquent minorities.” [2] More recently, perhaps to avoid imprisonment, many women on the run (with and without their children) are crossing the Rio Grande and actively looking for Border Patrol officers (Preston, 2015). At these chosen entry points, their cases are apparently being processed quickly, within three weeks.

Over this past summer, the need of the incarcerated women (and their children) for asylum was presented to me and to others like myself who are members of asylum networks, such as Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). We were encouraged to find a way to help. Thus, in August (2015) under the auspices of PHR, I, a psychologist-psychoanalyst from New York City, spent a week in the South Texas Family Detention Center (one of the three facilities owned by the Corrections Corp. of America) in Dilley, Texas, a town of perhaps 3800, a hot, sandy, desolate part of the United States, as can be seen in the photo below.

UP 5747 Dilley, TX © Joe Cordova | Flickr

There I participated in a highly collaborative project sponsored by CARA, an organization created by four attorney-run organizations. [3] Every week, beginning in the spring of 2015, (and apparently continuing into 2016) a different group of volunteers organized by CARA, made up of people from all over the country with a variety of skills (above all legal ones), arrive in Dilley to work with the prisoners. A skeleton crew (of three, four, or five people) are the guides. The goal is to insure that every incarcerated woman without an attorney will have the benefit of legal services. In this way, presumably, every woman will have the opportunity to state her asylum claim and then prepare a reasonable bond petition; in doing this, she will avoid deportation, at least temporarily. Once out of the prison and living somewhere in the U.S., each woman still will have to complete the process of applying for political asylum, which can take some time. While still at the prison facility, however, just waiting for her bond to be arranged, her case may be held over from week to week. Accordingly, all the information collected about her will be posted on one in-common online site. In this way, each new group of volunteers, week after week, is able to make use of the information collected about each woman by those who have come before.

My task, during the week that I was there, was to complete psychological evaluations of those women whose cases had been denied during their first appearance before an asylum officer.[4] In general, an evaluation done by a mental health professional of the symptoms an asylum seeker experiences as a result of the trauma (s)he endured at home can contribute considerably to the strength of her/his asylum claim. As background to my work with each client in Dilley, I used the information that had been posted online by others who had been there before I arrived.

In addition to completing evaluations, I was asked to consult with individuals who said they “had a problem” beyond their asylum claim and wanted the opportunity to talk with someone who might help with it. In this capacity I saw a few women for appointments that lasted an hour or more. In retrospect, it was the manner in which these women thought about the nature of their experiences, almost always in relation to the culture of machismo from which they came, that most affected me as a psychoanalytically oriented clinician. No mention is made of “machismo” in Women on the Run, the document created by UNHCR. Its importance, however, with regard to the tenor of gender relations in Central America is difficult to ignore, as I will describe below. But before I get to this description, I want to address the implications of the fact that we in the United States of America have set up a prison system to house people who are potentially refugees. A great amount of public outrage has been garnered by this fact, because it is regarded from a legal perspective, both nationally and internationally, as inhumane and illegal.

Inhumane Incarceration of Refugees

From the beginning of their arrival here, women from Central America have a difficult time. Reports of various kinds tell us that, too often, they are hassled by our border patrol officers.[5]

Often they are apprehended in the physically aggressive manner pictured here. Then, many women with children are thrown into small, ungenerous places, “ hieleras” (ice houses) the women call them, because they are very cold and extremely confusing. There, questions do not seem to get answered.

The larger, longer-term facilities that succeed the hieleras after a short amount of time are certainly more comfortable physically. The layout, at least in Dilley, is moderately spacious, the temperature bearable, and the facilities clean, as the drawing and photo below illustrate.

In addition, there is decent food and shelter. The Dilley facility has a school (a one room classroom) for the children and some sports activities as well. There is, however, a great deal of turnover among those attending the school because children come and go as their cases are processed. Thus, some of those who remain behind refuse to attend the school because, since their imprisonment, they have lost many friends. Some even refused to leave their beds. One mother I saw, for example, had been unable to get her child out of bed for days because, she said, he so missed his departed friends. This, needless to say, was proving difficult and depressing for her.

Beyond such clear cases of depression, almost all of the children question their incarceration because imprisonment is so unnatural for them. They often blame their mothers for bringing them to such a place and, as result, may think badly of both their mothers and themselves.

A Prison is Not a Place for a Child, Berks Detention Center, PA © Joe Piette | Flickr
A Prison is Not a Place for a Child, Berks Detention Center, PA © Joe Piette | Flickr

As for the women themselves, meanwhile, not only is there nothing for them to do in the prison, beyond a single English class that meets a few days a week, but the noise in the public spaces is often difficult to bear. Moreover, many of their children are physically ill, a situation that is exacerbated by the crowding. A physician’s assistant who succeeded my stay at Dilley told me that she sent four of the children she saw to the local hospital for pneumonia. For reasons that were never clear to me, the prison-based infirmary does nothing substantial to help manage illness and contamination. Often the women are seriously ill as well.

Then there is trauma, which all of the inmates have experienced. Not only were medical services in the prison outrageously lacking, psychological services also were inadequate. Based on the stories I heard, the people providing those services had little or no experience with trauma. Two women told me that they had been advised by the social worker they saw to “get over your feelings and move on.”

Finally, upon release, the mothers are frequently forced to wear ankle monitors, as pictured below. These are not only inconvenient (the monitor is large, the cord to replenish its electricity short, etc.), but extremely humiliating to their wearers, as Gogolak reported in a recent Times editorial. Ankle monitors, meanwhile, are an economic boon to the Corrections Corporation of America because their upkeep is inexpensive, far more economic, certainly, than housing a woman in prison.

Ankle Shackle Monitor. No Crime. © Jeff Pearcy | Flickr
Ankle Shackle Monitor. No Crime. © Jeff Pearcy | Flickr

Stories about these events circulate in the news because of the travesty the prisons represent. Judge Dolly Gee and others have said that they contradict everything the United States stands for. Presumably because of this ruling, the facility in Dilley is bettering the services it provides for children in order to meet state requirements for such places. Nevertheless, nothing seems to have changed since the past summer concerning the happiness of the inmates, as illustrated by the letter and drawing below [6], sent to President and Michelle Obama in December 2015.


Mr. President, This letter is to let you know that I am an inmate in the South Texas Residential Center and I am here detained with my children, and the truth is that I don’t want to spend Christmas day locked up here with my children. It is very sad that we will spend the day without our relatives and that is why I am asking your President Obama and your wife Michelle Obama, who is a mother just like me and others who find ourselves locked up here with our children. Please let us enter your country with our children to have a very merry Christmas together with our families. I hope you listen to us and that you keep mind all of our letters from those of us who are mothers. I wish you a Merry Christmas.[7]

Perhaps most alarming is the fact that imprisoning refugees, as we are doing in the U.S., is not only inhumane, it contradicts international law. As detailed above, the Geneva Convention protects refugees from persecution at home. If their fear is well founded, they cannot be penalized for entering another country illegally unless they are suspected of having committed war or other serious crimes. Nor can they be sent home (principle of non-refoulement) by the country in which they have sought refuge. In addition, the Convention “lays down minimum standards of treatment for refugees,” which include: “access to courts, to primary education, to work, and the provisions for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form (the “Nansen passport,” this is called). Clearly, such standards fly in the face of imprisonment of any sort, as we are doing in Texas.

Letter to Obama from Dilley | Posted with permission from CARA Pro Bono Family Detention Project
Letter to Obama from Dilley | Posted with permission from CARA Pro Bono Family Detention Project
Christmas Drawing for Obama from Dilley | Posted with permission from CARA Pro Bono Family Detention Project
Christmas Drawing for Obama from Dilley | Posted with permission from CARA Pro Bono Family Detention Project











At this point in time, it is difficult to get a clear picture from news agencies about how our government will contend with this crisis. In 2014, Obama’s attempt to get funding for expanded facilities for migrants, which presumably might have made adequate screening of asylum applicants possible, was defeated in Congress. More recently, (in December, 2015) according to Politicoimmigrant rights groups were outraged when the Obama administration began arresting mothers and children, as a first step in the process of deporting them. And even more recently, the Obama administration in collaboration with the United Nations announced an expanded refugee program in which individuals from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras will be processed in centers set up for this purpose in several other countries. Individuals will presumably apply, one by one, to the UNHCR as a first step. The draw back to this, according to its critics, is that that would make it possible to apply for refugee status only from beyond our borders.

Most recent of all, as I write this essay a New York Times editorial reports that on Thursday, February 12, 2016, Senator Harry Reid introduced a bill in Congress that

would help to guarantee due process for border refugees. It would require the attorney general to appoint lawyers for unaccompanied children and others who are vulnerable, like the victims of abuse or torture and those with disabilities. The Department of Homeland Security would have to make sure that all migrants knew their rights and obligations, and understood what was happening to them.

This is a sign that there are indeed people in Congress who understand the kinds of danger border refugees face. It may also be a sign of our willingness, in the United States, not only to abide by the legal traditions that the United States stands for, but to abide by the universal code of human rights.


Part II forthcoming, entitled Lasting Emotional Injury: the Effects of Machismo.

[1] This is the federal agency responsible for the handling of immigration. It is one of the agencies that comprises the office of Homeland Security.

[2] As a consequence, the facility located in Pennsylvania is closing. As of 1/10/16 at Dilley inmates are being processed within 20 days, the time allotted by Judge Gee. (Preston, 2016). However, beds have been added in the facility in Karnes, Texas, to house the latest migrant influx. In the week of Dec. 15, 2015 the CARA website reported that the population in Dilley was up again to 2000. CARA is described in greater detail below

[3] The four organizations that created CARA are: Catholic Legal Immigration network, American Immigration Council, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and American Immigration Lawyer Association.

[4] Asylum claims and therefore bond petitions are often denied because the petitioner has not stated her case clearly or completely. Unclear, incomplete stories emerge for many different reasons: Some asylees are, at first too ashamed of the abuse they have endured to tell their whole story; some speak an indigenous language and translation is poor; some cannot read and unwittingly sign deportation papers, etc.

[5] See ACLU report on border officers. 

[6] A number of drawings and letters can be found on the American Immigration Lawyers Association Facebook page.

[7] Translation provided by AILA, (American Immigration Lawyers Association)


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