The U.S. Has A Long, Troubled History Of Detaining Families Together Now that President Trump no longer can separate migrant families detained at the border, his administration is preparing to lock them up together — an arrangement with many critics and legal limits.

The U.S. Has A Long, Troubled History Of Detaining Families Together

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now that President Trump has said he will no longer separate migrant families apprehended at the border, his administration is preparing to lock them up. The Defense Department is under orders to confine up to 12,000 immigrant parents and children on military bases. Two installations in Texas plan to start putting up temporary housing after July 4. As NPR's John Burnett reports, family confinement has had a troubled and litigious history in the U.S., and legal advocates for immigrants are preparing for a major battle ahead.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Inside of a ramshackle ranch house in the inhospitable brush country of south Texas, a group of volunteers has been fighting family detention. Their 12-hour days could get even longer with recent moves by the Trump administration to expand the confinement of undocumented families seeking asylum.

KATY MURDZA: Tarantulas - we have rattlesnakes. We have scorpions, and we spend most of our time working.

BURNETT: Katy Murdza is a volunteer with the CARA Family Detention Project. She sits outside their office and home in a shady breezeway. They've come here to provide legal advice to 2,000 mothers and children who are confined in the gilded cage that is the South Texas Family Residential Center.

MURDZA: These are not criminals like the administration wants people to believe.

BURNETT: This sprawling complex of portable buildings is located in the town of Dilley an hour south of San Antonio. It's the largest of two family detention facilities in south Texas operated by private, for-profit corrections corporations. The problem for the White House is they're nearly at capacity. Trump's Homeland Security Department favors detention, saying detained immigrants cannot abscond and skip their immigration court hearings. And this makes them easier to deport when and if they don't receive asylum. The fly on the ointment for Trump is the Flores settlement.

MURDZA: The Flores settlement says that kids can't be detained any longer than is necessary. And right now, it's limited at 20 days.

BURNETT: This restriction was imposed by a federal judge in California two decades ago. The Justice Department is currently working to overturn Flores so that families can be detained longer until their court date comes up. Meantime, Flores says parents and children must be released after three weeks. Trump tried to separate families but canceled the practice after widespread public outrage. Katy Murdza says another ugly confrontation is brewing.

MURDZA: What they're proposing in place of family separation is a return to the early days of family detention where families were detained indefinitely.

BURNETT: We've been here before. Three hours north on Interstate 35 is the city of Taylor. Here, between rolling hills and a train track is the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. It opened 12 years ago as a medium-security, 500-bed facility to hold families seeking asylum. Conditions were appalling according to Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch. She was a law school student at the time volunteering there. Now she's an Austin immigration lawyer with clients inside the facility. She remembers what she encountered there in 2007.

KATE LINCOLN-GOLDFINCH: There's barbed wire. There are prison guards. There's counts throughout the day so that people are in their cells for hours of the day. There's no free movement around the facility. The food is terrible, you know? It's just a prison.

BURNETT: The ACLU sued and settled with the Obama administration. The civil rights group complained about poor education, substandard health care and no privacy. Two years later in 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement abandoned family detention and only housed single females of at T. Don Hutto. John Sandweg came on as ICE acting director a few years later.

JOHN SANDWEG: What I learned was that detention is a very difficult business. And no matter how well-intentioned you are, when you confine people in facilities like that under stress, bad things can happen.

BURNETT: Fast forward to 2014. Alarmed by a surge of families crossing the border illegally, ICE jumped back into family detention with the two big facilities in Texas - one in Karnes City, the other in Dilley. Rather than repeat the mistakes of T. Don Hutto, Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch says ICE tried to make them more family-friendly.

LINCOLN-GOLDFINCH: You go in the lunchroom, and there's murals of smiling broccoli. And then in the rec area, there's a playscape.

BURNETT: Lawyers say conditions at existing family facilities have improved. They're more humane, but they're still not appropriate for young children who exhibit problems like bed-wetting and weight loss. And advocates are fearful of what Trump's version of family confinement will look like.

LINCOLN-GOLDFINCH: The legal community is bracing for a fight against family detention 3.0.

BURNETT: Immigrant families that are released from Dilley because of limitations on detaining children end up here at the Greyhound station in downtown San Antonio. Dozens of mothers and squirming children wait for buses to distant cities. A woman from Guatemala who gives her name as Marta is asked what conditions are like at the Dilley detention center that she just left.

MARTA: Mas o menos.

BURNETT: "So-so" is all she says. Then her bright-eyed 15-year-old son Oliver leans forward.

OLIVER: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "They don't give us freedom," he says. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.