On the evening of Monday, August 25, 2014, the city council of Dilley, TX held a special meeting to receive a presentation from Corrections Corporation of America, marking the first public proposal for a family immigrant detention center in town. Dilley, formerly home of the world’s largest watermelon, would soon be home to the country’s largest family detention center, a development that would splash across every major news publication for months to come and become the greatest legacy of Mayor Mary Ann Obregon and her city council.
The CCA representative described a facility that would fulfill Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s request for “families needing housing while their cases are being processed.” By “families,” the agency meant exclusively mothers and their children. The children are an average of nine years old; some are babies that have not seen their first birthday.
In the meantime, the local newspaper was left with a problem: what to call it.
Three days later, the headline in the Frio-Nueces Current premiered: “Feds May OK internment camp at Dilley” with a sub “Opportunities for Employment.”
Corrections Corporation of America immediately called to complain
The headline and column were written by Marc Robertson, then editor of the newspaper. Robertson had no qualms about calling it an “internment camp.” “Well, it’s simply a description of the facility,” he said. “It’s a set of buildings surrounded by fencing with security for people who have arrived at the American border and have presented themselves, seeking shelter, asylum care, protection… They’ve got bedrooms, they’ve got living space, recreational facilities. There’s some nursing, there’s some health care, a cafeteria…” Corrections Corporation of America immediately called to complain.
It was hard to believe that Robertson, a talented writer and avid history buff wouldn’t anticipate CCA’s reaction to his choice of headline. It was hard to believe that “opportunities for jobs” wasn’t a joke or a wink from Robertson, an immigrant himself from Britain, land of warped deadpan political satire. There must have been some hidden motive.
“That I was possibly taunting?” he asked. “No. I wanted readers to see clearly ‘internment camp.’ And ‘internment.’ That this is where people were being held. I also recognized quickly that, to put it bluntly, newspaper readers in South Texas don’t put up with bullshit. And you start bandying about terms like ‘Family Residential Facility,’ people see through that very quickly.
“I’m sorry but the amount of oil booms that we’ve gone through, the amount of high promises of great things… they’ve all been couched in this sort of strange lingo where you use slightly evasive terms. And when this name came up, it just rang those bells.”
The next edition of the newspaper featured a follow-up column: “CCA: We don’t call it an internment camp.” One notable absence from the article, an apology or retraction from Robertson. He had just pissed off the largest private prison corporation in the world, but Robertson didn’t blink. “Dictionary definition time here: this is where you’re being held,” said Robertson.
The South Texas Family Residential Center, as it was finally named, opened in December 2014. County residents that have heard tales of cushy living arrangements inside the facility reject any comparison to internment camps. A recent San Antonio Express Article described some of the services provided to the mothers and children who are detained under legally dubious circumstances as “amenities.” However, sports fields, medical care, and classrooms were among the features touted by the United States Government in their World War II internment camp propaganda films.
In fact, government produced film from internment camps bear an eerie resemblance to government released footage from inside the modern “residential centers:”
Nevertheless, over one year after the opening of the South Texas Family Residential Center, on Monday, June 27th 2016, Dan Stratton was scheduled to make a presentation for an “ICE and DHS Family Residential Center” before the Dimmit County Commissioners Court in Carrizo Springs, about 40 miles from Dilley. Stratton planned to make a pitch similar to the one CCA made in Dilley, where the 2,400 capacity South Texas Family Residential Center had established itself as the most profitable facility in the roster of the largest and most notorious private prison company in the country. Despite an overwhelming amount of activism from pediatricians, psychologists, historians, social workers, attorneys, and religious leaders to end the practice of detaining mothers and children, Stratton wanted a piece of the business.
A few days before the scheduled meeting, however, a resident posted to the Carrizo Springs Facebook group page. “I was told today that Carrizo Springs is going to have a Serian [sic] Refugee camp but was not told where it would be. Is this true and if so where will it be located? Thanks in advance for the answer.”
God bless the internet. The first reply was “At my house.”
Predictable reactions followed:
“Refugees get treated way better than a normal american.. I see that alot here in abilene.”
“Have you seen the one in Dilley those people live better then [sic] us.
“Yes they do and even have cell phones from the government….”
“That place is nice. A lot of amenities.”
“In abilene we have russian refugees and they get everything free including their cars”
“I wouldn’t mind great pay and benefits.”
“Is this true?”
“Yeah it would create job opportunities for carrizo.”
Full disclosure: I may have inserted myself in this part of the story. I felt a need to communicate that most of the jobs did not go to locals. I shared a screenshot of a (my) job application there, which showed that I was rejected on grounds of bad credit. In oil field towns going through busts such as Carrizo and Dilley, most residents are going to have bad credit. I didn’t participate in the online debates, just shared the articles.
Eventually and perhaps inevitably, the anti-immigrant crowd showed up. Scores of posts went up, and before long a vision of Dimmit County’s future took shape: tax money diverted from helping disabled veterans to support Syrians running around beheading people, Mara Salvatrucha youth shooting up the towns, and rampant disease. There were hundreds of comments. A page administrator with a business interest in the facility deleted as many as possible, inflaming the residents even more. Oddly, and through different paths, folks on the political right were now allied with folks on the political left in opposition to the proposed detention center.
Commissioners Court meetings are typically barely attended by residents. By Monday, however, the Dimmit County Commissioners Court was forced to move their meeting from the usual small room to their larger courtroom. Nearly 100 people quickly filled available seats, citizens began to fill up the space standing along the walls. A few newspaper journalists and television crews were in attendance.
Stratton was woefully unprepared for his pitch to concerned residents, many of whom felt the timing was meant to make this happen without their approval.
It’s all a matter of language
The federal government has a need to establish a family residential…” he hung for a split second. “…facility. I didn’t say ‘detention facility.’ I said ’facility’…. I didn’t want to mention the word “detention” and that is probably the biggest issue to each of you.”
Even though very few people refer to the facilities as “internment camps,” hardly any refer to them as “residential facilities.” The commonly used word is “detention centers,” though authorities have preferred the phrase “residential centers” occupied by “residents.” It’s all a matter of language.
The proceeding demonstrated the difficulty in choosing and sticking to a terminology. As Stratton attempted to assuage the fears of the audience, he explained that none of the residents who would be detained have criminal records.
“What’s in the facility? It’s a nice facility. Nice bedrooms. A dining facility that can feed 1000 folks, there’s basketball, there’s horseshoe pits… There will be classrooms. Why? Because they don’t go to school in your schools. They go to schools in the camp. Can they leave the camp? “No!..No!… They can not leave the camp,” he pleaded the Carrizo Springs residents to understand.
Conspicuously, he had started to use the word “camp” as shorthand instead of “residential facility”
Commissioner Mike Uriegas asked how long Department of Homeland Security had been in contact with Stratton. “Homeland Security came in 5 black cars with guns to my facility two years ago. They came rolling down the dirt road. Suddenly I had a call from Homeland Security that said, ’we want to use your facility as a detention center to house immigrants.’” He forgot that he had just told the audience that he didn’t want to use the word “detention.”
Uriegas pressed Stratton further. “Something else I’d like to point out is that the two presidential candidates are both against these detention centers in this country. Are you aware of that?” *
“It’s not a detention center,” Stratton answered.
A few minutes later, County Attorney Daniel Gonzalez asked, “I had a question about how we were going to prosecute escapees from your facility if it’s residential and not detention… If it is not a detention facility, our Sheriff can’t arrest them for that offense.” With his question, Gonzalez pointed out that the debate over the name is not a matter of semantic nitpicking, but has real-world applications in regard to the law. When he finished his point, the audience broke out into applause, displaying their recognition of the language game at play. The history of naming these facilities was about to collapse on Stratton.
Stratton felt his way through his reply. “May I say this? The word ‘detention…’ In every detention center…The word detention is…” He finally found his footing. “Judge Gee ruled against detaining women and children. And so the government still has a problem. How do we detain women and children? So this new concept, the concept is… we’re changing the name from detention center to family residential center.”
I will clear this courtroom!
The audience of local residents groaned.
“There are still guards. There are still guns. But the idea is, they don’t want a five year old to see a guy walking around with a machine gun on his back with bars on his window. I don’t have another answer.”
After nearly 40 minutes, As Stratton grew more frustrated witnessing his pitch fall flat in front of an unsympathetic courtroom, he finally erupted. “Folks, what in the world can I do?! I’m…”
The crowd erupted back. County Judge Francisco Ponce banged the gavel rapidly and disciplined the residents. “I will clear this courtroom!”
When Stratton was finished speaking, Dimmit County residents lined up to give comments. Full disclosure: I did as well. After an hour, they were barely halfway through, but County Judge Ponce had heard enough. The commissioners voted it down and Stratton would not get his $50 million dollar contract for a family residential center, detention center, or internment camp.
For what it’s worth, President-elect Donald Trump has not stated a specific position on privately run family detention centers/internment camps, but has spoken in favor of prison privatization and holding detained immigrants until they are deported. Hillary Clinton, according to her website, pledged to “end family detention and close private immigration detention centers.”
Story by: Jose Asuncion is a third-generation resident of Dilley, TX and an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist with an MFA from the University of Southern California.
Featured image photo: Jose Asuncion
CCA Dilley – Japanese Internment Mashup Video: Jose Asuncion
For more stories like this follow us on Muze Collective Facebook