The rest of my day went like this:
2:45 pm. I return to the attorney’s trailer. I prep two more clients for credible fear interviews taking place the next day. I meet with a young mother who belongs to the Maya Mam indigenous group in Guatemala. She speaks very little Spanish. I ask why she came to the United States. In her broken Spanish, she responds, “They believe I am not Torres.” Huh? It takes me several tries but I start deciphering what happened. In her small rural town everyone is indigenous. Everyone is also very dark skinned. Both of her parents are dark skinned. She was born with light skin. No one can explain it. Everyone rejects her. Her father disowned her. Her siblings are forced to ignore her. Her extended family does not accept she is part of them. Villagers violently beat and kick her, because they know no one will come to her defense. Her young son is also constantly attacked. Everyone wants her out. Her family’s name is Torres but they disowned her. They believe she is not their blood. “God gave me the color of my skin. I cannot change that. This is what he wanted,” she says with tears flowing from her eyes. I cannot help but take two enormous gulps to keep from being overwhelmed and losing my composure. I hold her hand, look into her eyes, and assure her, “your skin color is beautiful.”
She needs very little prepping. She says “they attack me because I am a single mother, indigenous woman, who has been disowned by my family and town due to the color of my skin.” She has a strong case. Like my previous client, she also needs counseling. Nothing is provided by the Detention Center.
Before she leaves, the client gives me 7 “papelitos,” or small pieces of paper. This is how the mothers communicate with the attorneys. These “papelitos” have their name and “A” number on them. This is how they communicate that they want to talk to the attorneys. She even gives me a bracelet belonging to another mother. She could not write her name, so she gave her bracelet to send her message. These mothers will be called the next day for intakes.
4:00 pm. For my last duty of the day, I attend a credible fear decision. The CIS officer wants an attorney present for the decision. We are escorted to another trailer. The mother, her teenage son, and young daughter enter the room. The daughter goes to play with the toys and puzzles. She is also drawing. The CIS officer goes through the findings with an interpreter on the phone. It is a positive determination. For her accomplishment, the mother is served with a Notice to Appear and a court date. I inform her she can now ask an Immigration Judge for a bond.
It is time to leave the room. The CIS Officer walks out and so do mother and son. The daughter is still trying to put all the toys away. The CIS officer tells her, “Just leave them there.” The young skinny girl refuses to listen; she is determined to put everything away like she found it. “And these kids are national security threats?” I catch myself thinking. She reminds me of my 8 year old daughter. When she is done, she walks directly towards me and without saying a word, hands me her drawing. It is a beautiful colorful house with a chimney and a big yellow sun shining in the sky. I am stunned! Immobilized. This was her way of thanking me. This is all she had to express her gratitude. It is worth a million dollars.
I walk back to the attorney room behind my clients and the officer with tears running down my cheeks. I am taking deep breaths trying not to make much noise. I think about how this facility is separating these families from their loved ones, and separating me from mine. After everything that I have seen and heard today, I decide it is okay to violate the “be strong” code and allow myself to release some emotions. It’s okay. I am human.
5:00 pm.. We leave the facility and stop at a restaurant for a quick meal. Our Big Table meeting with all the volunteers starts at 6:30 pm. On the way, I notice that most of the stores close at 6 pm. Even the gasoline station near the church is closed. “How do they make their money?” I ask myself.
6:30 pm. We have our daily Big Table meeting recounting the events of the day. Everyone shares their stories and important facts. We discuss strategy and what to watch out for. For the next 4 hours, we prepare and cases are assigned for the next day. The rest of the night is dedicated to printing motions, putting evidence packets together, translating documents, filling out asylum applications, and cracking a joke once in a while to lighten the mood among the volunteers.
10:45 pm. I decide to call it a night because I am starving. I leave to see if I can find something to eat. On the way to the hotel, I spot a Burger King Restaurant and I see people inside. I speed to the drive thru and I hear a voice say, “Can I help you?” I said “Yes, give me a quick minute.” I look over the menu and say that I am ready to order. Then I hear four words that will ruin my night, “Sorry, we are closed.” What? You’re kidding me, right? “No sir, we are closed.”
I head back to my hotel for more oat and honey bars and I add a trail mix pouch for dessert.
I prepare my clothes for the next morning.
12:30 am. I retire to bed. I will sleep a couple of hours and start all over again at 4:45 am.
To be continued…
Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, Southern California Chapter AILA Member Volunteer and AILA President-Elect
If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to http://www.aila.org/beavolunteer or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at firstname.lastname@example.org–we are looking for more as the work continues and we could really use your help.
If you aren’t able to come help in person, consider donating at http://www.aila.org/helpthevolunteers. And thank you!
To watch videos of the volunteers at Artesia and elsewhere sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.