What It’s Like to Turn 18 in an Immigration Prison

In 2016, “Valeria” was handed over to U.S. Border Patrol 21 days before her 18th birthday. She is one of the nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children who have traveled to the U.S.  from El Salvador to escape violence or family abuse since 2013. This is Valeria’s account of her experience of turning 18 in an immigration detention center for children overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She prefers not to publicly disclose her last name out of fear that her story could impact her legal case, which is still pending.

Illustration by Yuri Jang

Just a week before my 18th birthday in April 2016, a counselor told me that if I still did not have all the necessary documents to be released by then, I could not continue to stay in the immigration detention center for minors.

This would mean that I would be moved in with adults.

About a month before, when I arrived at the U.S. border, I was sent to an immigration facility for children in Houston. The children’s center reminded me of a gated private community, with security at the main gate. We were not allowed to leave, but we could move freely inside.

Most of the buildings inside this gated community felt like a person’s home, with a small living room, a dining room and a kitchen. The rest of the house had bedrooms with two bunk beds in each — enough space for four girls.

When they told me that I was going to be sent to the adult facility, I was very frightened and I had many questions. What would the place be like? Would it make it more difficult to leave the detention facility to live with my mother? The only answer I got was that it would be the same as the current facilities, but the classes I enjoyed with other kids would be over.

Every morning, the other children at the children’s center and I would go to a building where the classes were held.  Every day we were taught English and math. I have always liked English. It was one of favorite subjects at my school in El Salvador.

Days before my birthday, I was given five minutes to call my mom and tell her that I would be moved to an adult facility as soon as I turned 18.

The year before, my mother had fled El Salvador because of domestic violence. After I faced physical abuse at the hands of my father, I decided to leave the country, too. When I crossed the border, I hoped that I would soon be able to reunify with my mother, who was now living in Houston.

The day before my birthday arrived. I had everything ready to go, and I packed my few possessions in a suitcase provided by the facility. I said goodbye to my friends. I was so nervous about not knowing what would happen to me that I spent almost all day crying. I think my sadness spread. All the other girls were crying, too.

Later that day, when the federal immigration agents came to get me, I asked if they would transfer me that same night. They said, no, transportation would not be ready until the morning, but they needed to move me to another part of the gated complex, away from my roommates. That’s because they were not legally allowed to have an adult sleeping with the minors in the same room.

So I was sent to a different room, to spend the night of my 18th birthday, alone.

A Bus with One Rider

On the day of my 18th birthday, at 5 a.m., federal immigration agents came to that solitary room.

It was time to join the adults.

I was told that if I got handcuffed not to be frightened or become rebellious. But that frightened me even more, along with the realization that the bus that would take me away had bars on the windows.

When I got onboard, one agent wished me a happy birthday. She made me feel a little bit better until I saw the inside of the bus. The bus had cameras. Iron bars and a door separated the agents from me.

I felt horrible. I wondered what I had done to be treated like that. They already had my information. They knew that I’m not a criminal. My only offense was to turn 18.

I cried all the way to the adult center. I was scared and thinking about how my family would be worried about me and not knowing when they would be able to hear from me.

I remember thinking how turning 18 years old changed everything completely. I was the same person. I had the same personality, the same thoughts and the same desire to reunite with my mother, but just being one year older had changed everything.

After hours of being on the road, we arrived at a place that said “detention center.” As I was about to find out, it was identical to a jail with bars.

I got off the bus and passed what felt like a thousand armored doors before getting to a small room. The agent who had accompanied me on the bus left me there with another officer. None of the officers spoke Spanish or they did not want to speak Spanish to me.

In the ‘The Fridge’

On entering the center, the agent gave me a uniform and underwear. He told me to take a shower and put on my uniform. The clothes I was wearing would go into a separate bag.

I come from a warm country where we put on a sweater when the temperature drops to 70 degrees. But from the time I walked in the door, the whole place was cold. It felt like a fridge, which is what all the people locked up called it. When I took a shower, the water was cold.

I got out, and an agent asked me many questions. Then, she told me to stand next to a white wall that had numbers and took a picture of me. She announced that I was now in their custody and gave me a little book with the rules of the facility.

Valeria in April 2018

I got even more nervous, which caused me to cry. I asked her what I had to do to get out of the jail and how long I would be there. The agent told me that I had to see a judge first and depending on what I said, I would be told how much longer I would have to stay there.

I asked her when I would see the judge.

The agent said she did not know, that they would tell me later. It usually takes several weeks or months because there are so many people waiting, she said.

After that exchange, the agent took me to a cell that was empty except for a few benches and locked the door. Later, she said, they would come to take me to my room.

The uniform they gave me was blue. It was identical to the orange uniforms of inmates I had seen in the movies or television series like “Orange is the New Black.” Even with the uniform, I still felt cold.

New Roommates

About 10 hours later, they came to get me from that solitary room with bars. I thought my new sleeping quarters would just be a room with a bunk bed, like the room I had slept in at the juvenile facility. I was surprised to see that it was an immense room with tables and a television in front. In the back, separated by a small wall were about 60 bunk beds.

The officer explained to me that I was entitled to a phone call, but that my family had to send me money for those calls and to buy food at the facility.

The only food provided tasted bad and was served in only very small portions. For example, breakfast consisted of a single hard-boiled egg and a glass of milk. That was it, until lunch time, when a small, cold sandwich was provided.

Even worse was the situation with my new roommates. The women in the room looked at me like I was fresh meat. All of them were much older than me, and most had a criminal record.

Luckily, three women helped me during my time at the prison.

They defended me from the other women when they mocked me and when they wanted to molest me in the shower. There was also one occasion where someone put a knife under my mattress when the guards were doing inspections. One of my new friends removed it so that I did not get into trouble.

In the end, I was in the prison for 40 days, the longest 40 days of my life.

Now, I’m much happier. I’m going to school in the morning and working in the afternoon. My goal is to become a pharmacy technician.

But many memories remain from my time behind bars.

It’s been two years since I left that hellhole, and I still wonder why I had to pay such a high price for crossing the border, when the only thing I was looking for is help. 

Valeria was reunited with her mother after leaving the Texas detention facility. She recently married a U.S. citizen whom she met through a family member. They currently live in San Diego while she is waits to resolve her immigration status.

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