Life on Hold: Central American women’s experiences of U.S. immigrant detention



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This thesis examines daily life in U.S. immigrant detention in the state of Texas based on the perspective of formerly detained, asylum-seeking women from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. It seeks to answer the following primary questions: what are the policies and structures of current U.S. immigrant family detention centers in Texas, and how do they impact asylum-seeking Central American women and their children living in detention for weeks or months as a time? What internal or external resources do these women draw upon to survive the challenges of detention, and what happens to them once they leave?

This thesis draws on theoretical texts, statistical data, news sources, and reports from international organizations and NGOs to build a conceptual framework to understand U.S. immigrant family detention; however, it places the memories and opinions of formerly-detained women at the heart of its conclusions by engaging in the methodology of oral history and the Latin American tradition of testimonio. This work is therefore divided into four principal chapters exploring: (1) country conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as women’s reasons for leaving home; (2) asylum-seeking women’s encounters with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in the holding cells known as hieleras, or “iceboxes”; (3) experiences of daily life in two new, privately-operated immigrant family detention centers in Texas; and (4) women’s individual and collective efforts to resist the challenges of detention and find freedom.

Generally speaking, asylum-seeking women from Central America experienced substantial discrimination, physical distress, and psychological hardship during their time in U.S. immigrant detention which left long-term negative impacts on their families’ overall health. Despite this, Central American women who participated in this thesis drew upon multiple internal resources to overcome barriers and organized to defend their human rights inside detention.