How things used to be
Up until a couple or so weeks ago, my "family" detention center experience had been such that I could meet with a mother during our legal meeting, and her child/children were able to play in the awkward "playroom/play corner" at the facility.
For example, the playroom at Dilley was in the far right corner, complete with toys and the Frozen soundtrack playing on repeat. Outside the door was a little mini fridge with juice and snacks for the kids. For an incredibly insidious moment—you have to be careful. You have to remind yourself: this is an effing prison—no matter what the half-hearted attempts to mask the truth are.
So, for the months that I've been working at these detention centers in Texas, I've been able to consult with my client one-on-one, sometimes with the child in the room—and if the child wants to go outside and play—they were able to do so.
The quick policy change
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I heard from some colleagues that the policy had changed: that all children needed to be with their mothers at all times, including legal meetings with their attorney.
There was some speculation as to why the change was implemented, but it was mainly thought that while the children were in the "play area", some of the detention center officers found it taxing to be monitoring them.
This is what happens when babies are in jail.
Perhaps my toughest legal meeting yet
I had a client last Thursday evening who was seeking asylum like everyone else there, and we were in the often lengthy process of writing her declaration for her appeal. Sometimes, depending on how complicated the situation is, it can take a couple hours to ensure all the facts are recorded in the declaration.
This young mom from El Salvador came in with her 2 year old daughter. We were in a windowless meeting room. The room itself is made out of cinder blocks painted white and has florescent lighting. A grown adult wouldn't want to stay in one of these rooms for hours at a time—but in these circumstances—it's all we have to work with.
So, the mother and I began the lengthy process of her articulating her entire story for seeking asylum here in the United States. Maybe 15 minutes into the declaration, her two year old daughter started to cry and wail.
In fact, she was crying so loudly that I could barely hear/understand what the mother was trying to tell me. Who could blame this little toddler? She was in baby jail and although she was only 2 years old, I am certain it was the emotional and psychological stress from being incarcerated. And it hit me heavily how this child has to absorb all this trauma at such a young, developmental age.
The little toddler was wearing a winter hat—even though the temperature outside in Texas is already hot (inside the windowless walls of the visitation room, however, it is always so cold). I wondered about how that hat may be her only sense of feeling protected from all the oppression that was being launched at her and her mother. There were a few times when I got the sense that she wanted to hide underneath that hat. And I completely understood.
I left the meeting room about 45 minutes in to confer with a colleague. I said: "I know this is the new policy, but—what do we do when the toddler is just inconsolable?" She responded: "We just have to do it." As she said that, I noticed a couple of coloring books, 2 beat up crayons, and a few pens were on another table. I grabbed the entire stack and brought it back in the room. It worked for about 5 minutes.
Then, this poor toddler's incessant wailing began again.
The mother was visibly frustrated. Tears started brimming around her eyes and she told me that the same thing had happened during her asylum interview, but she didn't know that the daughter didn't need to be there and the asylum officer apparently didn't ask if the toddler could leave. I could see how this could severely impact her claim.
We took another "break"—which meant a quick walk around the confines of the larger visitation room. When the mother and toddler came back, the toddler came back with a little basket of plastic grocery toys from the "play corner." This lasted another 15 minutes or so before she started crying again.
Oh man, it was freaking difficult. I didn't want to convey to the mother that on the inside, I wanted to simultaneously cry along with the toddler. I wanted to let the mother know that it was not her fault that her daughter was crying and that I was there to listen to her whole story in between her toddler's wild sobbing.
Then I hit some type of awkward stride—where I was able to somehow get into the flow of things with this poor child just crying throughout the entire time.
About 2 1/2 hours after she walked in, we were done. They could leave.
And I couldn't help but wonder: was the mother able to get her entire story out because of this situation, despite attempts to ensure that she did so?
Due to similar stories like these, a report was filed to address the necessity of these mothers needing adequate space and time to have a private consultation with their lawyer. This type of organizing, really, is essential to help push back against oppressive policies that further obstruct an asylee's path to be able to stay in the United States. The last I heard was that this policy is being reversed at the detention center so that the mother can decide where her child/children can be. I will hopefully be able to give an update on that soon.
But it's a constant process—identifying detention center policies that are further hindering our ability to give legal services. And—organizing/fighting back effectively. It's just another thing to constantly fight for.
And I've been doing a lot of thinking on the difference between being a legal service provider and being a pro-active force to shut these detention centers down. More on that for another day (or blog).
Onward and forward, my friends—onward and forward.