As a volunteer attorney at the Dilley, Texas, family detention center, I’ve seen many children and their mothers come to me for help, seeking a way to gain asylum in the U.S. and finally have a safe place to raise their children, free from fear.
One such example is an indigenous woman from Guatemala, Maria*. She earned a living making traditional clothing from her home. After a terrifying and abusive childhood, she married at 15 and now has four children. Every single one of them is jailed with her, the youngest is 5, the oldest 15.
Though she married to escape her abusive family, her marriage offered no safety. Her husband abused her, and in 2011 he drove drunk and hit a gang member’s truck. The police came, but the gang surrounded and outnumbered them. Maria ran outside to find her husband handcuffed and kneeling on the ground, surrounded by the police, who were surrounded by the gang. She ran to protect him, the father of her children, as the gang was ready with matches and gasoline to set him on fire. She was beaten by the gang, in front of the police. The police did nothing, and left her there to be beaten by the gang and threatened further.
She hid in her home for about a month until the gang returned, surrounded her home, and told her they would set her house on fire. She took her children and fled to live with her mother. The gang followed her there. She huddled in the home while her sister brought her supplies to work with to try and keep food on the table for her children. A few months later, she crept out of the house and the gang grabbed her – dragged her by the hair and threatened to rape her, burn her alive, and rape her children. She decided she had to flee, but she couldn’t afford to take her children.
In 2012, she fled to the U.S. but was kidnapped at the border by the mafia in Arizona, and held for ransom, which her mother scraped and borrowed the $8,000 to pay. Not knowing the law, she didn’t file for asylum then because she was afraid she would be deported, and she needed to work to pay her mother back. She worked, cleaning homes, and provided financial support to her children in Guatemala.
In December 2014, she began receiving threats on her cell phone from the gang. They referenced her husband, and the time she got away, but now demanded that she pay money or her children would be raped and burned. She changed her phone number in January, but somehow the threats continued. She tried blocking the number, but the gang found her mother and threatened her. The children were followed after school and were terrified for their lives. In February, the threats continued, and Maria went to lawyers to try to seek asylum for her children. She filled out the necessary forms, but she isn’t sure what happened to them. She then went to the Guatemalan embassy in California, but they told her that they couldn’t do anything to help and that she should send for her children.
Maria felt she had no choice. The gang told her she had to pay by early March or her two oldest children would be raped and burned alive. Within days Maria flew to Guatemala to try and protect them and the very day she arrived she filed a report with the police. The police officer told her the police were corrupt and that the gang would know she was back and made a report. The officer told her to take the children and run because the police couldn’t stop the gang. She hid the children in another home until they could all flee the next night.
Maria used what funds she had to feed the children on the journey. She used the GPS on her phone to guide her north. She wanted to go to the bridge in Tijuana, but she ran out of money to get her family there. So instead they crossed the river in Texas; she crossed with them one by one. As soon as she had a signal she dialed 911 and while she was calling, Customs and Border Protection arrived.
She and her children have absolutely no money left. She has no one that could pay a bond to get her and her family out of the detention center.
If Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) follows their recent policy, then our government will set her bond at a minimum of $7,500. That might as well be a million dollars. She has no way of paying such a high bond. She could barely manage to afford to keep herself and her children alive. Now they sit in detention at a cost of up to $300 per day per person – that’s $1,500 a day for her family. ICE’s decision to detain a beleaguered, exhausted mother and her four frightened children is costing the taxpayers as much as her likely bond every five days. Every five days.
What is this gaining us? This determination to jail mothers and children rather than offer an alternative to detention is just wrong. And to “offer” them a bond that is so far beyond what they can pay is crueler still.
If it makes no fiscal sense, and it makes no moral sense, it makes no sense at all. Family detention needs to end, and Maria and her children need to be released while they seek asylum from the abuse and terror they have suffered.
*Name has been changed
Written by Victoria Carmona-Fehr, AILA Member and Family Detention Project Volunteer
If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at firstname.lastname@example.org – we could really use your help.
To watch videos of the volunteers 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.