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US Family Detention Centers Not ‘Like Summer Camp’

Locked Gates, Yelling Guards, Frequent Roll Calls Not My Camp Experience

The Karnes immigration detention center in Karnes City, Texas (left), used by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain migrant families, and (right) a child plays in a lake during summer camp. © 2014 Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images and © 2018 Michael Bochenek/Camp Exclamation Point

On Tuesday, Matthew Albence, acting deputy director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told the Senate Judiciary Committee that ICE’s family detention centers are “like a summer camp.”

I’ve visited those family immigration detention centers. I’ve also volunteered as a counselor at an actual summer camp every year since I was a student. Let me tell you: there’s no comparison.

Let’s start with the obvious: at the summer camp where I work, we swim in a lake every day, run scavenger hunts and other fun activities, and tell stories over campfires. Some campers are anxious when they arrive, but almost all leave talking excitedly about coming back the next year.

The families in immigration detention centers are locked in. They’re assigned numbers and answer at roll calls throughout the day. Guards shout orders, and sometimes verbally abuse detainees. Detained families don’t really know when they’ll be let out. In principle, they shouldn’t be held more than 20 days, but that limit isn’t always respected.

Albence isn’t talking about the cages or the freezing holding cells where parents and kids are held after they’re detained by the Border Patrol.

But detention is traumatic – particularly for children, particularly for those fleeing abuse abroad, and particularly if it’s open-ended. It’s destructive for families, because the guards, not the parents, set the rules. It’s dangerous – ICE has a long and terrible history of providing subpar medical care, for adults and children. And it’s especially unsuited for recently reunited families, many with children “exhibiting signs of anxiety, introversion, regression and other mental health issues” as a consequence of forced separation.

In Texas a week ago, I spoke to a father who told me his 9-year-old son had stopped talking during the time they were kept apart by US immigration authorities.

Next week, I’ll be at my camp on a lake in Vermont. There will be singing, archery, bottle rockets, bread-making, and quidditch on boats. We’ll end the week with a carnival, an annual tradition.

It requires a vivid imagination, coupled with callous indifference, to equate family immigration detention with summer camp.  

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