Captivity as Service? Interview About Detention Centers for Undocumented Children

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]

In summer 2013, the PIC Teaching Collective organized an eight-week training about the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). One of the sessions focused on the relationships between immigration policy and the PIC. Questions emerged about the intense secrecy surrounding the incarceration of undocumented children, typically in detention facilities that are at undisclosed locations and that are administered by nonprofit organizations. This secrecy makes it difficult to understand the conditions faced by children apprehended by Homeland Security. It also shuts down public discussion about the role of nonprofit social service agencies in administering detention and enforcement programs against the very people they are supposedly advocating for. The editors of this issue decided to follow up with further research.

The framework for the treatment of children apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security is outlined in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the legislation that initially created this agency. DHS must determine if a child is unaccompanied or not. Children who are apprehended with a parent or guardian, or for whom DHS is able to locate parents or guardians in the United States, are not unaccompanied; they remain detained by DHS in adult facilities with or without their parents. There has recently been a justified public outcry at the terrible situation faced by these children. Children who are determined to be Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs) and who are not considered a “security threat” are detained according to different regulations; their situation, and the protocols referring to them, are often described in the most euphemistic and positive terms. These children are “referred” to the Office Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which provides them a “safe and appropriate environment as well as client-focused highest quality of care to maximize the UAC’s opportunities for success both while in care, and upon discharge from the program to sponsors in the U.S. or return to home country.” Translations are necessary: “client” = child; “safe” = secure facility or other form of monitored placement;  “care” = detention; “return” = deportation. In 2013, ORR held 24,668 children in custody in facilities for children. These children are also facing deportation proceedings.

In Chicagoland, there are currently seven detention facilities euphemistically named residential programs for UACs. It is one of the largest off-the-border hubs for child detention, with a dramatic increase in the last few years: from less than 400 in 2011 to almost 1,300 children in 2012. This growth is linked to increased border enforcement in our area; additionally, many children from southern states are often flown in because facilities elsewhere are full to capacity. The administration of these detention facilities is contracted to local NGOs.

We were relieved to meet a former volunteer for a local nonprofit servicing unaccompanied children; they agreed to help us open up a conversation about the situation of unaccompanied children and about the intersection of the detention/prison industrial complex with the nonprofit industrial complex. While this is not only happening in the context of immigration enforcement, the intensified crisis faced by illegalized migrants has created a state of emergency that often makes it hard to raise critical questions about strategies of response. Children are being incarcerated in increasing numbers, and often in adult facilities where they face extreme and brutal conditions. There is an urgent need to get these children released from the grip of Homeland Security. And yet the case of children detained as UACs illustrates some of the contradictions: in order to ameliorate conditions for detained children, nonprofits become funded to administer their captivity. In this and many other ways, the sphere of advocacy becomes complicit with, and financially co-interested in, the very structures it is supposedly working against.

Adults and children detained on immigration grounds are not entitled to public defenders, visitation or other basic aspects of due process as would be the case in the criminal system. The catch-22 is that if we question the ways people are illegalized, if we question the relationship of nonprofits to Homeland Security, we risk jeopardizing the programs that offer those held captive a small lifeline. This is a systemic problem that remains largely unaddressed by social movements because internal criticism or dissent is cast as threatening to the funding streams of organizations that offer services to those imprisoned.

This interview presents excerpts from a conversation that was negotiated over time. We promised to respect our interviewee’s concerns about jeopardizing programs currently servicing detained children. Although they spoke with us openly at first, our informant eventually requested to remain anonymous and to remove the name of the organization they volunteered for. At the request of this organization, the informant also removed several passages in which they had expressed their own internal conflicts about this situation, and gradually requested edits that adopted the official language of “custody,” “care,” and “service” that is promoted by the immigration bureaucracy. This has been a difficult and uneven process, which in many ways does not reflect AREA’s commitment to a culture of openness and debate. Still, we have learned a lot in and we understand that our informant is in a difficult situation. We hope this is a useful first step in a local public discussion.

AREA:  When an adult is taken in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they become lost in a legal limbo of complex and discretionary policies, indefinite detention practices, and no due process. How do children encounter the policies and practices of Homeland Security?

Anonymous Informant (AI): My limited experience has only been with immigrant children who have been apprehended alone, without an adult relative present with them. These children are referred to as unaccompanied minors. Like adults in the US immigration system, unaccompanied immigrant children must represent themselves in court or find an attorney themselves as they are not entitled to public defenders. After unaccompanied children are apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they are then transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the federal agency charged with the custody of unaccompanied immigrant children. ORR will then place the child in one of the many detention centers/shelters for minors that are located in confidential locations all over the country. The number of unaccompanied children immigrating to the US has been rapidly increasing. According to the article “Children Alone and Lawyerless in a Strange Land” which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 23, 2013, US government officials estimated that in fiscal year 2013 there will be 23,000 unaccompanied minors placed into custody. ORR contracts with local non-profits who run the facilities for children. In Chicago the social service agency Heartland Alliance runs these centers and their National Immigrant Justice Center represents many of the immigrant children in court while they are detained.

AREA: Based on your experience, can you describe to us what conditions undocumented children face? For example, what are these centers called? Can children enter or leave voluntarily, and under which conditions? Do they have legal representation? Do their loved ones know where they are? Do they receive visitation? What is their legal and physical situation, who controls the rules, who has “custody“ etc.?

AI: Children cannot enter or leave the centers voluntarily. They go outside in groups for a scheduled recess everyday when its warm enough, but they can’t go outside by themselves. Staff at the centers contact children’s parents or other relatives, usually with phone numbers provided by the children. Once they are contacted relatives have to send in documentation to prove their relationship before they allow the children phone time to talk with the family member. The children are given two ten-minute phone calls twice a week. There are also some medical and dental services provided. The children are in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is charged with their care and custody, and ORR contracts out to local agencies, like Heartland Alliance.

AREA: How does this form of detention affect children? How does it affect the people who work in these centers? For example, what are some reflections you are willing to share—including of your own subjective experience? Did you find some aspects of this work to be rewarding, or challenging, or troubling? Finally, how are children released from these centers and where do they go?

AI: I would say the most rewarding aspects were when the children I advocated for were released to their families, as well as to see the tremendous strength and sense of humor that kept the children going in the face of the traumas they had experienced in their home countries and the the pain of being separated from their families. Sometimes children break down, too, they have been through a lot, so that was hard to see. Sometimes it felt challenging that I couldn’t do more to speed the process along or keep them from having to attend immigration court. It was also challenging to balance my desire to know more details about the children’s stories so I could better advocate for them with the understanding that they might not be ready to talk about some of the experiences they had been through. During my visits we did a lot of coloring and talking about goofy things. Most children are released to a relative within a month or two after they are apprehended, but sometimes children are kept in the centers for a long time if there is a problem locating a relative, verifying the relationship, or if there are concerns about the sponsor’s home or human trafficking. Many of these children end up in the US foster care system or refugee group homes.

For more information on the situation of captive children, see or “Unaccompanied Children in Immigration Custody” at

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