Time passed slowly inside the detention center. It was the afternoon of June 3, 2015, and the oppressive heat of South Texas reminded Lilian Oliva Bardales, a 19-year-old mother from Honduras, of home. For 239 days, she and her 4-year-old son, Cristhian, had been held inside the Karnes County Residential Center, a family immigration detention facility an hour southeast of San Antonio. Inside that day were 604 women, some of them pregnant, and their children, some of them still nursing, virtually all of whom were asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the violence-plagued region of Central America known as the Northern Triangle. Two hours west, a detention center in the small oil town of Dilley held another 1,459 mothers and children. Lilian had been informed the previous day that she and her son would soon be deported.
“I write you this card so you know how it feels to be in this damned place for eight months,” Lilian wrote in a small notebook, dotting her “i”s with open circles. She had been deported once before, in May 2014, when she came north without her son. “You humiliate all of us who have come to this country for the second time. If I do this it is because only God knows what I have suffered in my country. I come here so this country can help me, but here you’ve been killing me little by little with punishment and lies in prison when I haven’t committed any crime… I do this because I don’t feel any life going back to my country.” She signed her name and identification number, and left the notebook on her bunk bed.
Lilian removed Cristhian’s identification card on the lanyard around his neck, went into the bathroom, peeled away the laminate with her teeth, and started moving the edge across the veins of her right wrist. Hearing no response from the bathroom, her roommate called for help. Emma, a Honduran who had been detained for seven months with her 2-year-old daughter, snatched the notebook and hid it inside her bra. Edi, a Honduran who had been detained for five months with her three sons, watched as Lilian was taken out of the room by facility staff. In the days and weeks that followed, the story of la flaca (“the skinny one, the little one”) circulated the rooms and prisonlike passageways of Karnes. “Did you hear about what happened to la flaca?” they asked. “She was so young.” But they sent them back. Edi and Emma, too.
On June 9, Honduran news outlets ran a story from Soto Cano, the large Honduran military base north of the capital that houses several hundred US troops: Ten mothers and their 12 children were being deported from Texas. The mothers descended onto the tarmac from a 737, covering their faces with their hands and shielding their children with their bodies. They saw the first lady of Honduras, Ana García de Hernández, welcoming them home.
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In the spring and summer of 2014, images of Central American children crossing the US-Mexico border flooded the 24-hour news cycle. It was called an “immigration crisis” and “the surge.” Alongside unaccompanied children was another population from the same region: women with their children. By the end of that fiscal year, 68,541 unaccompanied minors, the majority from the Northern Triangle, would be caught by the Border Patrol—a 77 percent increase from 2013. For women and children arriving together, the number jumped by more than 360 percent.