Zayas recognized for research on effects of children living in immigration detention centers on the border

  Monday, February 26, 2024

By Amanda A. Taylor-Uchoa

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – FEB. 22, 2024 – You are 5 years old and you and your little sister have been traveling for months with a stranger. You have fled your home in Ecuador because your parents have told you America is safe. You are dropped over a wall into an unfamiliar place, where strangers in uniforms gather you up and conduct medical assessments on you.

What do you do now? Where are your parents? Will you ever see them again?

Accounts like that one abound in the award-winning book, Through Iceboxes and Kennels: How Immigration Detention Harms Children and Families (2023), written by UTRGV Provost Dr. Luis Zayas, senior vice president for Academic Affairs.

The book, which recently earned a 2024 Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) Book Award, conveys the stories of asylum-seeking migrants from Central America over the past two decades, from Zayas’ own research.


Zayas and his team conducted a series of interviews with children in detention centers, through myriad circumstances. Some children lived at the centers with their families; some had been left alone as their parents were deported; and some lived in centers and were able to live in the United States as immigrants.

In 2014, Zayas was invited by a group of attorneys inspecting a detention center to see how families were faring in the centers in South Texas. Zayas was then funded by the National Institutes of Health for a research project based on this work in 2014.

“That’s how the book starts,” Zayas said. “It’s a combination of findings from that research, but also the experiences I had with families and their children. The idea was to show the conditions under which they had to live.”

The book shares the migration experiences of children and the parents living through it, and describes the psychological and social effects of the migration process and how it affects children’s mental health and development.

Zayas, who has spent more than 40 years working as a clinical social worker and developmental psychologist, has dedicated more than a decade to this specific research on how psychological trauma affects the developing brain of a child. He said he wanted to bring to light the trauma surrounding migration, specifically associated with children in immigration detention.

“I’m a social worker and a psychologist, so this research was part of both what I did as a faculty member, and what I was compelled to do as a human being,” he said. “To draw attention to the problems I had spent a good chunk of those 40 years studying.”


The work has received the 2024 Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) Book Award for Best Scholarly Book Published in January. SSWR commended Zayas for his outstanding scholarly contributions in advancing social work knowledge.

He was invited to the SSWR conference to accept his award plaque on Jan. 13, but was unable to attend. Dr. Luis Torres, founding dean and professor within the UTRGV School of Social Work, accepted the award on his behalf.

“Oxford University Press submitted the book for the award, and when I got the notification it had won, I was delighted,” Zayas said. “While I was unable to attend, I was grateful Dr. Torres was able to accept the award.”


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.