by Melanie Pino-Elliott

I lay on the bathroom floor and waited for the latest wave of nausea to hit. Though I hadn’t had as much as a sip of water in the last eight hours, my stomach was still wracking my body for something to purge. Slowly, I pulled myself up and staggered back to bed, groaning and clutching my pounding head in my hands. I glanced briefly at the water, extra-strength Tylenol, and bowl of oatmeal on my bedside table, but my stomach lurched in response. As unconsciousness overtook me, I knew that I would soon awaken to further pain and nausea - then vomit, cry, sleep, and repeat.

These migraines came along every two or three weeks, taking away a day of my life each time.

However, I was always able to call my boyfriend, my sister, or my parents to help me through it. I could see my doctor for the appropriate medical treatment. I could recover in the comfort of my home, with its heating and air conditioning, clean drinking water, and food available when I needed them.

So when I learned that immigrants in detention, who have virtually none of these resources, reported headaches and migraines as the most common physiological response to the stress of detention, it made my stomach churn in a different way.

Admittedly, this news doesn’t come as much of a shock. If you’ve as much as skimmed headlines in the last few years, you’ve seen the actions of immigration officers and government leaders grow increasingly horrifying--from tearing children as young as four months away from their parents to committing over 1,000 sexual assaults against minors in custody to considering provisions like soap and toothpaste unnecessary in detention facilities.

While conditions in detention are bad enough at face value, Freedom for Immigrants has taken the step of examining their impact on the health of immigrants. The findings are documented in a report titled Immigration Detention is Psychological Torture: Strategies for Surviving in Our Fight for Freedom.

Over the course of 2018, FFI surveyed 2,055 people in U.S. immigration detention, who reported 1,695 abuses or issues caused or exacerbated by detention. Stressors ranged from the physical (inadequate food, poor housing conditions) to the practical (fear of being transferred or deported, barriers to having or communicating with an attorney) to the social and emotional (barriers to visiting with family and friends, seeing a therapist, having physical contact with other human beings, or practicing one’s religion; and emotional abuse by guards or ICE agents).

In addition to headaches and migraines (which 64 percent of those surveyed had experienced), these stressors led to fatigue, insomnia, extreme weight loss or gain, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. An overwhelming majority (85 percent) of current and former detained individuals who did not previously consider themselves depressed now do. As one man from Bangladesh detained at Stewart Detention Facility in Lumpkin, Georgia described, “One day in here is like one year. I cry so much. I fear that I will die in here.”

ICE’s holding facilities do not appear to provide anything resembling adequate mental health care. For most people surveyed, a cursory screening upon booking was the only time they saw a mental health professional in detention—especially disconcerting, since 78.6 percent had undergone a traumatic event before being detained, making them obvious candidates for psychological treatment. For those who speak other languages or have a disability, there’s even less access: 38 percent of respondents claimed their facility did not have bilingual staff, while 73 percent reported no communication assistance for people with disabilities (such as blindness and deafness).

While failing to provide such services themselves, ICE does not seem to want others to either, as they have barred anyone in detention from calling 1-800 hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The sad truth is that detention is cruel by design. The goal is to make those detained give up hope and return to their home country out of sheer desperation. ICE and the private prisons contracted to house migrants have no incentive to treat them with any standard of care.

Freedom for Immigrants therefore looks to communities to take up the mantle. While mental health professionals in particular are needed, anyone can volunteer to visit a person in detention. Simply connecting to someone from the outside world can make a difference for a person who is suffering stress and isolation in the hands of ICE. Please join us and sign up to support people in detention here.

Melanie Pino-Elliott has conducted research and communications in the fields of international affairs, public policy, and human rights. She holds an MS in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and currently works in nonprofit development.

Cover art by Anthony Miranda, currently detained at Northwest Detention Center