Trapped in the Divide: The serious effects of detainment on mental state


The year is 1912. In the Immigration Station on Angel Island, young boys are ordered to strip naked. They are not alone, rather packed into a room surrounded by faces they have never seen before. Trapped on all sides by cold, stone walls, they have no choice but to obey. An American doctor dressed in a long white lab coat watches on with indifference. 

The boys are each handed a cold metal tray and ordered to produce a stool sample immediately. They are offered no privacy. 

More than a century later, a mother and child seek asylum in a foreign country. They are detained at the border and thrown into a detention center for a so-called temporary stay. Maximum 72 hours, officials say. 

They stay for weeks.  The migrants are never offered more than wet wipes to clean themselves or even a hot meal. The overcrowded, unsanitary facility is not meant for a person to live nor sustain their livelihood and mental state. 

The inhumane and psychologically damaging treatment of migrants has long been a malicious trademark of American behavior. America has stayed stubborn in its perspective of those unfamiliar. It is essential that we change this American mindset. 

As we continue to paint the migrant in an inhuman image, we allow ourselves to justify the severity of their treatment. The victims of this horrible system frequently suffer from serious and irreversible psychological damage, the effects of which are so severe that even after obtaining citizenship status or deportation, their quality of life will never be the same. 

In one Texas facility, adults were held for a week in an overcrowded room with no space to lie down and sleep, according to the New York Times. These facilities were not made to hold people for more than three days. Federal law requires that migrant children must be moved to facilities managed by the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours, and single adults to long-term detention centers within the same time frame.

Angel Island immigration station, often referred to as the Ellis Island of the West, is one of America’s earliest detention centers. While operating, this station detained more than one million immigrants from 84 countries, primarily China. 

The immigration checkpoint operated from 1910 to 1940. Angel Island differed from Ellis in one major way; on Ellis Island, according to PBS, an estimated 80 percent of immigrants passed through and into America in a matter of hours, with few detained for several weeks or a few months for health or legal reasons. In its western counterpart, migrants were often held for years with no promise of release. 

Following the Exclusion Act of 1882, American tensions against Asian immigrants hit an all-time high. Migrants detained in the center were forced to answer multitudes of absurd, frightening questions on threat of deportation. 

The manipulation that migrants face while being held in the detention centers causes many to feel overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness that in some translates to anger and depression. Their sense of hopelessness was portrayed through poetry. The detainees would scratch poems onto the wall as a means of coming to terms with their current dilemma and fate.

An unknown Chinese Monk from the town of Iron illustrated life on Angel Island as feeling, “like a pigeon in a cage.” The migrants were made to feel as if they were just a name on an endless list, all hoping for the same fate, yet still desperately helpless. 

But he was not literally caged. The conditions and treatment of migrants at Angel Island, though terrible, allowed them relative freedom and recreational activity. On the other hand, the ICE detention centers of today have garnered a ill-famed nickname among migrants: la hielera, or the icebox.

Detention centers at the border today have some of the most ill-kept, unsanitary and intolerable conditions in all of history. Women and children shiver as they will themselves to sleep in cramped metal cages, the silver mylar sheets not close to enough to keep them warm in the notoriously frigid centers. In many facilities, even thin cloth cots are not provided.

Las hieleras, or in English, the iceboxes, have become the unofficial title of some of ICE’s makeshift detention centers stationed in commercial warehouses. Women and children shiver in the ice boxes cramped metal cages; their silver foil mylar sheets are not enough to keep them warm. 

“[Upon arrival, the migrants are] very tired, worn out, the first thing they want to do is sleep,” Ken Hoegger, 73, a volunteer driver for detention centers in El Paso, said. “Then they want to take a shower. And then they’re hungry.” Hoegger stated that exhausted migrants typically request basic necessities, yet they don’t always receive them. 

The New York Times reports that in a center in Clint, Texas migrants said they were not given fresh water to drink for days and were forced to drink from toilets. Often unsure of their circumstances, the immigrants who have taken the treacherous journey to America in search of asylum are subjected to dreadful conditions in more than a dozen detention centers along the Mexico-US border.

In a September 2017 study of the impact of immigration detention on mental health, BMC Psychiatry found that not only do adults, adolescents and children experience high levels of mental health problems while detained, severity of mental symptoms is also positively associated with duration of detention. 

“Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were most commonly reported both during and following detention,” the report states. “There is a pressing need for the proper consideration of mental health and consequent risk of detention-related harm in decisions surrounding detention as well as for improved care for individuals within detention facilities.”

“America, a country of immigrants, likes to target the newest group of people.””

— Seema Moondra

“I left my entire past, friends, parents, family,” said North Brunswick New Jersey’s Department of Education Board Member Seemma Moondra. An immigrant from India, Moondra came to the United States optimistic, but spent her first few months feeling despondent. 

As a legal immigrant, she still felt displaced. 

“It felt so weird, so disconnected, so traumatic,” she said. “I didn’t even know the name of the street where I was walking on.” 

The American government paints a picture of the modern migrant as an inhuman creature with a mission to steal from the American people. A prime example of agendized demonization of immigrants is our own president’s 2016 campaign. During a June 2015 campaign announcement, Donald Trump attacked Mexican migrants. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he stated. “And some, I assume, are good people.”

 In reality, according to the National Immigration Forum, immigrants make up 17 percent of the workforce within the US, improving the economy. Nevertheless, Trump’s stance on immigration has sparked an angry fire in many Americans. 

This type of racial profiling and targeting is nothing our country hasn’t witnessed before. It has manifested repeatedly every time a different ethnical group comes to America in search of a better life. 

“[It’s] a pattern that America, a country of immigrants, likes to target the newest group of people,” described Moondra. 

Today, the target is migrants from Central America. In the time of the Angel island station it was mostly those coming from Asia. 

Moondra feels this pattern is “fueled by the manipulation of officials and ignorance of the people, who see migrants as nothing but invasive people who are stealing their jobs.” Because of this, we have come to see immigrants as not living individuals with rights but a mere statistic. 

“We ourselves are immigrants, you know,” said Moondra. “It’s important for us to realize where we ourselves come from, and then we can drive policy.”

In today’s world, the stigma around mental health is beginning to fade. This change is evident in places of privilege, where people have the freedom to pursue a better state of mind. The migrant does not hold the same liberty. 

Along with the horrific physical conditions seen in detention centers, it is essential that we include in the narrative how these conditions affect the migrant’s mental health. When we disregard migrants’ dignity and detainment conditions at the border, we cause a greater problem. We encourage the portrayal of the migrant as inhuman.