The following is Part 1 of a 3 part series about my experience working at the South Texas Detention Facility in Dilley, Texas.
Day 1: Sunday, 2/28
I had spent the last couple nights camping out in Terlingua, Texas (west Texas, north of Big Bend National Park near the US/Mexico border) before making my way to Dilley, TX.
Specifically, I was heading to Dilley because it is the location of the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC)—where more than 2,400 women and children can be held, making it the largest detention center in the United States. I had heard from other attorneys who had volunteered in Dilley refer to the detention center as a "deportation mill" because there are not enough attorneys on the ground to represent those detained, most of whom qualify for asylum due to the intolerable conditions they were experiencing in their home countries.
From Terlingua, I made the 6 1/2 hour drive to Dilley taking Route 90—which mostly parallels the US/Mexico border. US Border Patrol was everywhere—I randomly saw pick-up trucks parked up all alongside the freeway with dogs barking ferociously; border patrol agents were frequently spotted walking around various towns/stretches of freeway; and I was stopped several times at border patrol checkpoints where I was asked each time: "Are you a US citizen?" Even though I was, I found myself nervous approaching each checkpoint. It was so militarized and had so many Border Patrol officers—and there was just me.
And citizenship would be something over the next few days that I would be pensively be continuing to think about.
The town of Dilley itself only has a little more than 3500 people living there. However, it's just half a mile off Interstate 35—an hour up the road is San Antonio, and another hour after that is Austin, where my alma mater of UT is located. Dilley felt like another world away.
The Days Inn is the main option of where to stay in town, and it was pretty pricy for my very tight budget for this year. One of my friend's friends suggested I reach out to the local churches to see if there were any empathetic congregational members. I thought it was a great idea.
Soon enough, I was Facebook messaging with the Dilley Baptist Church Facebook group. And now, I am very gratefully staying with the family of one of the administrators of that Facebook group. They live about 6 miles north of the detention center on a family owned cattle ranch, where being mindful of the cows not getting loose past the main gate is something that crosses my mind every day when going to/from the cattle ranch.
Tonight was also the orientation for the upcoming journey at Dilley. It is time to begin.
Day 2: Monday, 2/29
Today, I arrived at the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) to start work at 7:30 AM. First, the STFRC is a detention center is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)—a billion dollar private company contracted by the federal government. They are profiting off thousands of people seeking asylum in the United States.
Once I set foot into the attorney visitation trailer—it was clear that like the other immigration detention centers I had worked at/visited—this place was more like a prison than anything else. It was a prison holding Central American women and children who are applying for asylum—to escape intolerable and unlivable violence in their home countries.
Upon walking in, I noticed a number of women and children in the waiting area—waiting to be seen. They were all wearing matching uniforms—again, insinuating criminalization—and this includes children ranging from a year old to young teenagers also wearing these uniforms.
And this week is a particularly short staffed—there are only 4 of us volunteers, 2 of us attorneys. It was a nonstop workday. We co-facilitated "charlas" (or conversations) about the particular stage of the legal process these women were in. And then from 8 AM until 5 PM—I met with a different woman (and if she had a child/children) one-on-one roughly every hour and a half.
Every woman who I had done a CFI (Credible Fear Interview—to qualify for asylum) prep with had cried during our time together. I heard many stories of gang and domestic violence and harrowing journeys to the United States. I saw their young children crying before, during, and after our legal session—confused about why they couldn't go outside and play and why they were there in the first place—after all they had already been through.
The mothers and children have very strict rules about when they can leave their cells/barracks (which are annoyingly labeled "cutesy" names like "Blue Butterfly" to try to remove the horrors of what is actually going on—that this place is being 100%+ operated like a private prison). I heard stories of children not receiving proper nutrition for dietary restrictions and sensitivities. And I heard about one child testing positive for early signs of tuberculosis and her mother receiving the medical notice of such in Spanish when she primarily spoke another indigenous language.
Children and women may have to wait several hours before being able to see a doctor for what may be a more timely medical need. Being told to "drink water" and "rest" are common prescriptions by medical staff.
I spent nearly the entire day counseling clients in Spanish—and was exhausted by 5 PM as it had been awhile since I needed to be translating so consistently in my head. After all the clients left, we entered in all the data to help us keep track of where the multiple women and children were in the legal process, and had a team meeting at the local Days Inn.
I didn't get back home to the cattle ranch until past 9:30 PM. I was careful not to let any of the cows out upon arriving back, and promptly went to bed where was my mind was still racing.
Day 3: Tues, 3/1
I came into work before 8 AM this morning and set up my workstation in the visitation trailer: a wobbly plastic table and red plastic chairs. I was ready to begin another day.
I had a number of Credible Fear Interview (CFI) preps today—back to back to back until 5 PM. And one thing is clear: the majority of women and children detained at STFRC have an avenue to gain legal status via asylum and other humanitarian laws. But they are being detained until they have proven enough about their case to an asylum official to allow them to be reunited with friends/family in other parts of the country so they can continue to prepare their full claim before a judge. The work that we have been doing the last couple days helps women better understand our complex asylum laws and helps to prepare them to share the part of their story that may help them prevail on an asylum claim.
This may be the most powerful experience I've had to date about the necessity of these women speaking with an attorney—so they are be able to ask questions and practice for their upcoming asylum interview. But it often feels like not enough. What will happen after the detention center process? What about the detention center population potentially fluctuating all the way to 2000+ when there aren't nearly enough attorneys?
Today, I again witnessed every woman I spoke with cry during our time together. There were many stories shared—all unique and individualized yet common in the need to flea an intolerable situation in their home country, plagued with corruption and violence. I heard about:
- Repeated accounts about being held at gunpoint by criminal groups/gangs
- Murders of loved ones and threats that they/their children would be next
- Extortion and being targeted because they were single women with children or single women business owners
- Local gangs trying to recruit their children into the gang
- The local police being totally corrupt or working in tandem with the local criminal groups/gangs—and this network being strong and powerful nationwide and therefore inescapable
Perhaps my only break from the CFI preps today (other than lunch) was when a little girl who was about 3 or 4 years old was wailing for her mother, who was in a prep meeting with another attorney. She must have been crying nonstop for 10-15 or so minutes.
For some reason, the next time this little girl came around, she ran up to me with a big smile and wanted to play. So, for the next 20 minutes, I drew with her on the erase board—we drew a house & dog together, and drew other doodles for awhile. For that short period of time, I semi-temporarily forgot that I was in the midst of prepping clients for asylum officer interviews, and I can only hope that she was able to remember that she was only a small child for awhile.
I want all of these babies to remember that they are only small children—and to be able to run outside when they want and to be free. As long as family detention centers exist—these precious, beautiful babies and their strong, resilient mothers are anything but free.
Early tomorrow morning, I have my first appearance in court as an attorney. I am representing two separate women in bond hearings so that they may be released to their friends and family. Adelante and more next week.
To help fund my work at STFRC, please visit: www.crowdrise.com/attorneyonthemove
As always, your continued friendship and support means the world to me.