Private detention corporations are profiting off of detaining migrant survivors of sexual violence

This week Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officially announced its plans to open a new family detention center in Dilley, Texas, to house mostly women and children. This will be the fourth “residential center” in the country after facilities in Artesia, New Mexico and Karnes City, Texas were opened in response to the recent influx of unaccompanied child migrants, joining a long-standing family facility in Leesport, Pennsylvania . If the existing facilities teach us anything about the way women migrants and asylum seekers are treated in this country, Dilley will be a money-making machine for the private prison industry and a hot bed of human rights violations.

In response to the treatment they have witnessed in Artesia and Karnes, 126 women’s and human rights organizations have signed a letter calling on the Obama administration to stop detaining survivors of violence and bring an end to family detention. The women and children being detained in these centers come from Central American countries with some of the highest rates of gendered violence in the world. The signees note that “in 2011, El Salvador had the highest rate of gender-motivated killing of women in the world, followed by Guatemala (third highest) and Honduras (sixth highest).” Most of these migrants are survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and other crimes and should be eligible for asylum, according to a new ruling from the US immigration court. However, instead of facilitating their application for asylum status and offering physical and mental health services to help them heal, ICE is keeping survivors in jail-like facilities where their past trauma is only exacerbated.

The US immigration system asks women to recount some of the most intimate details of the violence they have experienced for legal purposes, often in front of their children or other detainees, yet provides no comprehensive or meaningful mental health support while they are detained. Visitors to the Karnes and Artesia detention centers have found that the mental health services are inappropriate at best, non-existent at worst. In one center, the majority of the on-site mental health professionals are men, at another the only services available are through video teleconference. Let me repeat that: Women who have left behind their families and home to make a life-threatening journey only to sit in a detention center where every minute of their lives is controlled by mostly men can only process these experiences by talking to some dude through a computer. Maybe. Anne Chandler of the Tahirih Justice Center noted that one woman she works with was apprehended six weeks ago and still has not even received the post-rape gynecological care she requested upon entering the facility.

Perhaps worse than the treatment women receive within the detention centers is the sad fact that very few will be granted the asylum status they are waiting for. The complex nature of the application process means that it is virtually impossible for someone to receive asylum status without the help of a lawyer. Yet all of these detention centers are geographically isolated, making it difficult for volunteer lawyers to access their clients. Migrants are being consistently denied their right to due process as ICE makes every effort to expedite the application process. As I wrote about a few weeks ago women are not given adequate time, privacy, or emotional safety to actually detail the trauma that makes them eligible for asylum in the first place. Accounts from volunteer lawyers and detainees indicate that it is very likely that ICE is deporting survivors of violence back to persecution.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates under the logic that criminalizing and incarcerating migrants will deter people from entering the country without documents. But when asked to choose between detention and more violence and very possible death, the choice is clear: for many of these women, anything is better than staying at home.

There is no independent evidence that detention is deterring people from trying to cross, but there are many cheaper and more humane alternatives to detention centers. So why build another facility? Because there is money to be made. Private prison corporations profit off of the incarceration of black and brown bodies, and hold so much power that there is a minimum quota for the number of people being detained in the US at any given time. The new facilitiy will be run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the world. A few years ago, CCA and other for-profit prison companies identified immigration enforcement as “their next big market,” and that’s apparently coming to fruition.

The migrant “crisis” the US is facing is largely of its own doing – just read up a bit on the history of US involvement in Central America. And now that the people we’ve hurt the most with our foreign policy have shown up on our steps, we are continuing to exploit and abuse bodies of color for profit.

Women being deported back to life-threatening conditions in Latin America are fighting back 
Immigration: Can we really “fix” this system?


After researching this piece, Juliana needs to be excused so she can go rage scream into a pillow.

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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