The Nation’s Largest Immigration Detention Center
What happens to a town of 4,000 when the country’s largest detention center for immigrants opens its doors there? That’s the question we at Black Box traveled to Dilley, Tex., last year to try and answer.
Black Box — Christopher Gregory, Natalie Keyssar, Alejandro Torres Viera and me — is a creative cooperative that seeks to find new ways of making and presenting documentary photography. Rather than working alone, we worked as a unit, building off one another’s strengths and together developing the project at each step along the way.
We wanted to tell a story about immigration and detention in the United States not just through the experiences of those detained at Dilley, but also through the lives of the town’s residents. The result is “Welcome to Dilley,” a multiplatform project that takes a deep dive into a place at the heart of the national immigration debate.
Late in 2014, the Department of Homeland Security opened the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest detention center in the country, in Dilley. It was designed as a response to the thousands of women and children — many of whom were seeking asylum from the violence running rampant in their home countries — who had crossed the border en masse the previous summer. The center was made to hold as many as of 2,400 women and children as they worked their way through the immigration system.
Almost immediately, the center became a lightning rod in the nationwide debate about immigration and the legality of family detention, putting Dilley in the news ever since. Following the initial outcry, stories detailed human rights abuses alleged by the detained families. Soon after, the facility became the center of a continuing policy battle about the legality of detaining children. And now it’s the site where families swept up in recent Homeland Security raids wait their turn to be deported.
But before the center opened and the name Dilley became synonymous with the immigration debate, the town was a speck on a map, an hour and a half north of the Mexican border. Who were the people who lived there, and what did they have to say?
Noel Perez, the town’s administrator, called bringing the detention center and its promised 600 jobs a no-brainer. But Mr. Perez remembers a time when, as a young Mexican-American running for local office — one of the first in the region — he lost the election because of tacit racism.
Nowadays, most in Dilley can trace their lineage to Mexico within a generation or two, although that wasn’t always the case. Over the last 50 years, the town has flipped from being a quarter Hispanic and three-quarters white to the inverse.
Soveida Obregon, the 76-year-old mother of Dilley’s current mayor, still talks about the town she knew growing up, divided by railroad tracks: A mud school for Mexicans on one side and a brick one for the Anglo, or white, kids. To this day, the cemetery still has a white section and a Mexican section.
To explore bigger themes in the immigration debate in the United States, we gathered materials that painted a rich portrait of a town, its residents and their unwilling and unwelcome guests, all at the center of one of the most volatile debates in America — who belongs here, and under what circumstances?
Many in Dilley, including its Hispanic residents, are unsure what to think of the detention center and the families inside. The jobs didn’t flow as promised. From the perspective of a town where a third of the population lives below the poverty line, the women and children inside detention seem to be treated awfully well. “Why do they get everything, when we work so hard to get the little we have?” wondered folks all over Dilley.
And yet we also spent time with women and children who had been released from the center and found their way to the Mennonite House, an hour north in San Antonio. The house, overseen by the immigration nonprofit Raices, is a refuge where just-released families spend their first hours outside detention in America before heading on to where they would wait for the outcome of their asylum cases, be it Idaho, Arizona or Long Island.
Among its residents was Mirza Dalila, a young mother who fled gang violence in Honduras with her daughter, and another woman and her daughter who had been kidnapped in Veracruz, Mexico, on their journey to the United States. Despite these traumatic experiences, they described detention as a worse ordeal.
“I was desperate to get out of there, because truly, being there was a nightmare,” Ms. Dalila said of her time in Dilley, decrying the prisonlike conditions for women and children who went there seeking asylum.
But reality is never black-and-white. After months of contentious back-and-forth, the families in the detention center are being cycled out in weeks, instead of months, and the future of family detention is in question. Yet women and children continue to surge to the border in record numbers, fleeing unchecked violence in their home countries, while the administration has doubled down on the necessity of family detention.
As the political campaigns rage on, these families and the towns they’re housed in have become talking points in presidential platforms. But for the formerly detained families, and the long-term residents of Dilley, the issue isn’t abstract — it’s a defining facet of their lives.
Black Box is a creative agency for visual documentary projects.
Co-published with The New York Times.