The following is Part 2 of a 3 part series about my experience working at the South Texas Family Residential Center (aka baby jail) in Dilley, Texas. You can read Part 1 here.
Day 4: Wed, 3/2
Today was my first appearance in court as an attorney and I secured the minimum bond needed for 2 different women and their children to be *released* tomorrow from this hellhole detention center in Dilley, Texas. (!)
My first client was a young Honduran woman and her 4 year old son—both were present for the hearing. My client was aiming to be reunited with her mother who lives in a suburb outside of Boston. In fact, I saw her mother's address on her Massachusetts driver's license and actually had driven on the street where her mother lived a number of times.
I told my client that I was from the Boston area and that it was a beautiful place. My client said she was so hoping she and her young son would be able to go to Boston and be reunited with her mother after experiencing numerous gang threats and violence in Honduras. To start a new life.
After her bond was secured, I turned to my client and said "Bienvenidos a Massachusetts." I have never been more excited to welcome someone back home. And without a doubt, it is a first court appearance that I won't ever forget.
Day 5: Thurs, 3/3
This morning at 8 am, I had another court appearance to review a Negative Credible Fear finding for a particular client—a major roadblock to ultimately being able to obtain asylum and get the hell out of this detention center. I am quickly learning that the immigration courts—and well, life in general—can be a game of roulette. Where a person is simply (and randomly) born can determine a lifetime's worth of circumstances. I have been thinking endlessly about how being born in this country and having US citizenship has opened a wealth of opportunity and options to me. And that was something I had no control over.
And depending on what immigration court and what immigration judge you have—that can also dictate a wealth about your fate. Some judges vacate asylum cases at a very high percentage (80%+) and some are in the single digits. You can check out the database for yourself here: http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/judgereports/
Sure, there are a wealth of variables such as the number of cases that are being seen, etc., but statistics and math aside—one's fate may ultimately rest in a game of immigration court/judge roulette.
And spinning that roulette wheel is something that the women, children, toddlers, and babies of the South Texas Family Residential Center (aka baby jail) encounter every day.
Luckily, the case I presented was vacated and this woman was ultimately able to be released. But the question weighs heavily on my mind: what if the next roulette spin doesn't turn out the same way?
Day 6: Fri, 3/4
I think I am running on pure adrenaline at this point. But—this past week, our scrappy team provided the following services to the women and children inhumanely detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas:
--75 Credible Fear Interview Preps (for Central American women & children seeking asylum)
--3 Bond Hearings (2 of which I secured the minimum bond for—and those 2 clients and their children are now respectively in Massachusetts & New York w/their families! Bienvenidos!)
--ZERO people deported
--102 women and children RELEASED from this hellhole detention center!
I analogize the detention system complex situation in America to the following: it's a large boat that is quickly sinking. And there are many holes in the boat that are collectively causing the boat to sink: restrictive immigration policy & laws, a lack of fully informed public/social consciousness regarding detention in America, drugs & gangs/cartels in Central America and Mexico, and more.
But being here at this detention center feels like the most direct way I can help push back against this inhumane practice of detention in this country. It's plugging one of the holes in the boat. And I'm constantly wondering about how we can continue to plug even more.
Day 7: Mon, 3/7
"Dilley Disease" finally caught up with me this week. I've been told by friends who have worked here long-term that this is what happens when a volunteer attorney comes and works one's patootie off and subsequently gets the common cold.
I thought I was tired but energized by the week's end but once I had glorious Saturday to rest up, my body caught up with my mind and let me know that it was necessary to rest. This week, there are literally about 6 times more volunteers than last week, which has been nice—to collaborate with even more like-minded peers and to have the workload dispersed a bit more than just the 4 of us last week.
But today, I experienced another reason why detention centers in America are just like internment camps: it is customary to separate families—men go to one detention center & the women and children go into another. This causes a lot of further trauma to Central American families who have already experienced so much trying to escape gang violence and threats in their home countries.
Earlier this afternoon, I went to the male-only facility 20 minutes north of Dilley in Pearsall, Texas to meet with a dad who also has a Credible Fear Interview for asylum—a separate interview from his wife who is at the Dilley facility with their children.
I didn't get the impression that many attorneys came to the Pearsall/South Texas Detention Center. It's an all-male facility and had a much more prison-feel to it. In fact, once I was let in to see this particular client, our meeting space was essentially the size of a mop closet, with two separate stacks of plastic chairs surrounding us—a bizarre attorney/client meeting room.
I told him that his wife was doing fine, and tears started brimming around his eyes. He told me that it was very difficult being separated from his family and wondered what was going to happen. I said we would do all we could to prep them individually for their interviews w/their respective asylum officer. He then proceeded to tell me about the horrors his family had experienced as a result of being extorted by local gangs and murders within his immediate family. Before leaving, I told him that we were keeping an eye on both of their cases and were watching over things. I didn't want him to think that he was forgotten.
After meeting with this client in the mop closet, I thought about the countless other fathers out there separated from their wives & children in the detention complex system—who are being detained in more outwardly criminalized-looking facilities and many do not have access to counsel. I thought about some of these dads laying awake at night thinking about their wives, kids—and if they had been forgotten. If someone was coming to help.
Detention centers are everywhere—to see what federal detention center is near you: https://www.ice.gov/detention-facilities (and there are countless others detained in local/county jails, etc.)
Detention in the US is severing families and causing indescribable fear and pain to brave families who are seeking asylum in America. Our courageous asylum seekers need to know that we are watching—and that they are *not* forgotten.
Day 8: Tues, 3/8
Today, I observed a group of 25 or so women and children get prepped for their release from the detention center here in Dilley. (!) There was a stack of folders with various US city destinations where women and their children, toddlers, and babies were going to try to establish a new life here in the States. A life free from imminent fear or danger—a life where innocent and courageous asylum seekers will be able to live in peace. Cities all over the country were called where the women & children were headed to be reunited with family and friends: "Los Angeles! Boston! Seattle! Houston!" And the list went on.
I started to think about what would happen with their asylum cases once they left this detention center. Leaving this detention center is a giant first step towards their asylum case but needing to see the entire asylum case through is essential. Each woman left with a packet of information about their new US destination—with a list of pro bono lawyers available to hopefully continue to take on their asylum case.
It is imperative that we all do the best we can to ensure no woman, child, or family falls through the cracks.
How can we continue to build a robust asylee support network throughout the United States? One where legal & social support is provided to help asylees settle into their new home? These courageous and brave individuals and families deserve our support and attention.