Unforgetting, The Story Behind a Photograph

Austin Kocher, PhD
4 min readAug 14, 2020

Visit AustinKocher.com for more short articles about the current state of the US immigration system.

We arrived in Dilley, Texas on a Sunday, all seven of us committed to working with refugees for a week at the South Texas Family Residential Facility.

The name is a euphemism. It sounds like a boarding school, but critics argue that it has more in common with the Japanese internment camps of World War II.

Up to 2,400 women and children, refugees from Central America mostly but other places in the world, too, are detained here, isolated amid the Texas oil fields 100 miles from the border, with the bare minimum of care and threats to sign their own deportation orders or spend months or even years locked up with their children.

Despite valid yet complex claims to asylum, the US government doesn’t provide these women with immigration lawyers. But the private company that takes taxpayer money for each detention bed does occasionally provide Zumba classes. They’re not monsters after all.

This week, we were the volunteers on duty. A few attorneys. A few bilingual volunteers. None of us specialists. We all agreed that the detained families deserved much better than us, but what could we do? We were here. Others weren’t. That’s how the world works more often than we’d like to admit.

After our Sunday evening orientation, which consisted of a crash course in immigration law and a division of labor, we drove towards our hotel in the dark South Texas night. To get to the hotel, we had to drive past the detention center.

As we approached the entrance to the detention center, I asked the driver to slow down and pull off to the side of the road. From previous trips to Dilley, I knew there would be no time to spare in contemplation during the week. I wanted the team to see the detention center before we dove headfirst into the heavy work before us.

As we sat there, it occurred to me that the facility was more visible at night with its bright lights than during the day when the archipelago of FEMA trailers that forms the facility is barely visible from the road. Even the sign for the facility is located partway down the access road, not near the road where it would be easier to see by passers-by. In fact, many first-time visitors completely miss the turn-off on their first visit.

Austin Kocher, PhD

I study America’s immigration enforcement system. Assistant Professor at TRAC. Graduate of OSU Geography. Online at austinkocher.com.