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A Tour of a Detention Center, A Taste of My Own Freedom and Privilege

A photo from inside a detention facility( People in line at the processing facility in Donna, Texas)

It’s 8:30 AM on June 10th in flat, brown Laredo, Texas. It’s already hot and headed toward scorching as 20 of us lined and masked up in the parking lot of the CoreCivic Laredo Processing Center, not far from the CoreCivic Webb County Detention Center. We are being allowed a day-long tour of CoreCivic’s Laredo and Webb County detention facilities, the first tour since the pandemic began.

We are a diverse group of people working with detainees that includes attorneys, advocates, writers, and me, the CEO of Migrant Clinicians Network. One by one we are allowed entry. This is a small facility, currently occupied by 126 women and 10 men. “Low levels” the people here are called; their only offense is wanting food, shelter, work, and freedom from constant fear. 

This event required months of negotiation and we are privileged to be here. I feel relatively sure Core Civic –the contractors that staff both facilities – and the leadership from ICE are not looking forward to having us. According to staff, these facilities are inspected a lot and we are, in truth, just one more set of inspectors probing for injustice, inequity, and abuse. All the contract staff in both centers are courteous and efficient but do not engage us. On the other hand, the ICE leadership are present all day, are helpful and open to our questions. 

The Webb facility is a very old mountain of concrete and steel encasing a warren of cells. Here they house individuals categorized by their presumed “risk” -- low, medium, and high -- and recognizable by their blue, orange, and red detention uniforms, similar to nurses’ scrubs. All detainees in both facilities are locked in, even when reading, exercising, eating, praying -- yet these are places of no privacy. 

We meet with two small groups of red and orange clad women during our tour of the Webb Center. Two of the red-clad women were detained as a result of calling for help with an abusive spouse. One had lived in Austin since she was two years old. She was put in detention and her abuser was left with the children. At the Laredo Center, 76 people signed up to talk with us and five of us met without the guards with 36 of the women for about an hour.   My Spanish is spotty at best, so I missed many of the details of their stories, but I didn’t miss the anguish in their voices and the hope in their eyes.   

Yet, amidst the shattered dreams and clamped-down realities was a little hope. Unexpectantly, in the middle of our conversation at the center in Laredo, two men came in and presented six of the women their credible fear interview paperwork. These six were deemed to have passed their credible fear interviews, a critical step toward defending their need for asylum and their release into the US. The sweetness of that moment will stay with me forever as all those who were still waiting leapt up to celebrate and embrace the six who can now see an end to the months they have been waiting. I leapt up, too, celebrating with them and hugging back. 

I have been on tours of detention centers before. Yet every time I see the concertina wire and hear the electric doors slam shut behind me, I am absolutely clear why I have worked for Migrant Clinicians Network for 35 years and I am energized to do more. 

My reality, my privilege are so far from these women. I have privacy to take a shower; I have good food, meaningful work, and a future that includes retirement at the end of this year. I am free. As I walked out of the Webb Center there were hundreds of tiny white butterflies fluttering in the scalding heat. To me this will always symbolize the dignity and grace of the women I encountered in places that allow them no dignity and where grace is in short supply.


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