Family Detention in Dilley, Texas:
A Taste of Bitter Fruit

watermelon cropped Dilley is a small town in Southeast Texas that self-identities as the watermelon capital of Texas. In fact, there is a watermelon statue that sits in the middle of the town center. It was the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Dilley alongside a single gas station, a church and some dirt roads. Hidden from the center of town lies another landmark, though, and it is arguably more significant to the Dilley economy in recent months than the celebrated watermelon. You won’t find it immortalized in a statue because it is deeply problematic, and the euphemistic name on its road sign masks its purpose:to lock up immigrant children and their mothers. Indeed, the latest chapter in the detention of mothers and children fleeing violence is the for-profit South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

A facility that didn’t exist a year ago now has permanent facilities that has space to detain 2,400 women and children, more than half the size of the town of Dilley’s population[1] and more than any other immigration facility in the country. While the issue of child refugees and their mothers has fallen out of the media since this past summer, over 3,000 of these women and children are being held in Berks, Pennsylvania, Karnes City, Texas and Dilley, Texas. At least twenty families have now been incarcerated for more than six months and several hundred have been deported since August.

NJFON banner at Dilley croppedFewer than 10 feet from that watermelon and under a scorching sun, I met with staff  and volunteers from JFON Austin RegionalJFON Houston/East Texas, JFON Iowa, United Methodist Women and the General Board of Church and Society’s rapid response team members (there were about 50 of us!). We made signs, introduced ourselves and prepared to carry a very important message alongside 500 other protesters to the family detention center, to the Obama administration and to this small town once known for its sweetness—

Family detention hinders the legal rights of the most vulnerable asylum seekers.

It causes permanent harm to the physical and mental health of young children, compounding the trauma they have experienced in their home countries.

And last, family detention is unnecessary. Most asylum-seekers appear for their immigration proceedings after release from detention. Many asylum-seeking mothers and children have family or friends in the United States where they can live while pursuing their asylum cases.

Dilley little girl speakingWe sang this. We chanted it. We yelled it until our throats were sore as we marched two miles        through the town, past the highway and as we finally approached the outside of the lackluster facility. We positioned ourselves a few feet the barbed wire fencing that surrounded the entire facility. Near the front gate, the guards leaned against their vehicles and watched us.

Pictured here is a little girl named Leslie who is four years old and was detained at the Karnes facility with her mother. Her soft-spoken voice pleaded with us in front of the family detention center at the culmination of our march: “quiero que saquen todos, todos, todos.” She wants everyone, everyone free. A 6-year-old boy who had also been in family detention with his mother shared his story. He talked about being inside with his mom and being sad. He talked about making a paper airplane and a guard coming and ripping it up. Both children cried as they spoke to the crowd, but they had our full attention and complete silence as we held space for these tiny children to tell their stories.

Dilley compassion not detention 02According to the editorial board of the New York Times[2], “Detention is intended to help enforce the law, but, in practice, the system breeds cruelty and harm, and squanders taxpayer money. It denies its victims due process of law, punishing them far beyond the scale of any offense. It shatters families and traumatizes children. As a system of mass incarceration — particularly of women and children fleeing persecution in Central America — it is immoral.”

I feel privileged to have participated in this action to end family detention alongside many JFON advocates, Methodists, faith leaders, organizers, attorneys and families. Now more than ever, it is incredibly clear to me how important it is to help lift up stories of the brutal and cruel reality of family detention, and to advocate for a moral solution.

-Melissa, NJFON Program Manager

All photographs courtesy of Joshua Morowitz.


[1] United States Census Bureau: