USA: 'We are going to die from sadness'

A rare look inside an immigration prison reveals the suffering of indefinitely detained families: poor schooling, little sleep, and no idea when they will get out.
Eight-year-old Jorge Jr is withdrawn. He doesn’t lift his head up from the table for much of the hour-long visit at the immigrant detention center.

“He’s lost four pounds [1.8kg] since we got here. He’s not the same child,” said his father, Jorge. “The psychologist asked me if I wanted to give him any medication. I told them the best medicine is freedom. All we need is to be free.”

It’s been a traumatic few months for Jorge and Jorge Jr. After illegally crossing the Rio Grande into south Texas, the pair were arrested and separated by the US Border Patrol. Jorge Jr was sent to a shelter for a month while his father was processed in the criminal justice system under zero tolerance, the subject of a major Guardian investigation this week, for illegal entry to the US. Though now reunited, the pair – and thousands of others like them – face a new horror: indefinite detention.

The Guardian met three sets of reunited but incarcerated fathers and sons at the Karnes detention center, about an hour south-east of San Antonio, in early September: Hondurans Jorge and Jorge Jr and Franklin and Franklin Jr, as well as Elmer and his son Heyler from Guatemala. They are among the 800 “residents” at the prison where most children have been detained for far longer than the legal limit of 20 days.

“We’ve all been detained with our sons and have no idea when we’re getting out. I’ve been here with Franklin [Jr] for 53 days. I’m counting every day,” Franklin said in a subsequent phone interview – US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) forbids visitors’ recording devices and notebooks from the detention centre.

All three families fled their home countries in fear and applied for political asylum when they were taken into immigration detention. While they were separated from their sons, the fathers failed the “credible fear” interview they need to pass to seek asylum, but are all appealing their cases.

“It was sell drugs or be killed, so that’s when I decided to leave Honduras,” Franklin said, referring to threats his son received from gangs near the capital, Tegucigalpa. He rode through Mexico on the roof of a cargo train dubbed La Bestia (the beast) with his son strapped to him with his belt so he wouldn’t fall off.

Jorge left the Olancho region of Honduras for similar reasons. “It used to be nice but bad people turned up and started extorting, killing people, selling and trafficking drugs. So many of us left,” Jorge said. “I can’t mention names because if it comes out in the news bad things happen.”

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