Driving out of the Dilley detention center last Friday, an awareness hung over me as certain and cloudy as the sky itself. I’d just spent the week volunteering with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. As we pulled onto I-35 towards San Antonio, I scanned the open road and considered that most of the time I am unafraid. I don’t mean that I’m brave or even naïve, I mean that I actually have little to fear. There is not a high likelihood of violence in my life. I have no rational reason to worry that I might be raped, robbed, or killed on the way to the airport hotel. This is not true for the women and children at the South Texas Family Residential Center, “Dilley” for short.
To volunteer at Dilley is to gain admission to one of this country’s most bizarre industries. It is a refugee camp run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a for-profit entity that specializes, in its words, in combining “public sector oversight with private sector efficiency.” The Center neighbors the Texas Department of Corrections’ Dolph Briscoe Unit, and looks more like an encampment than the whitewashed prison next door. There is a temporary feel to the place, a collection of trailers next to a vast pebbled parking lot. A sign on the security checkpoint trailer announces “Appreciation Week.” Corrections staff enjoy an ice cream social one day and a barbeque lunch another, just outside the perimeter to what CCA refers to as the detainees’ “neighborhoods.” On Friday afternoon, while merrymaking CCA employees carry backpacks of corporate swag aboard party buses, the women inside the legal trailer described the reasons they’d crossed our border seeking sanctuary.
These were the stories we heard all week. A woman whose six–year-old sat in her lap while she described a gang’s threat to kill the girl if she didn’t pay them. Another who was targeted after her daughter was raped. There were victims of domestic violence so extreme it left physical scars, ignored by the police and told to deal with their problems privately. One soft-spoken girl was so afraid of the gang members in her own family that she wouldn’t tell her lawyers what they’d done.
Before last week, I’d never looked into the face of a child marked for death or met someone whose husband had been gunned down in front of their children. Heading out into the wide-open expanse of West Texas in our rented Hyundai, I had reason to appreciate the most basic privilege this country offers: a sense of safety. Just as fear is a feeling, so too is its absence. I realized how closely my sense of security shapes my identity. I define myself by how I interact with others. I try to be someone who is helpful, who works hard, who notices, listens, and laughs. These characteristics that mean so much would be nearly irrelevant if I had to spend my energy on survival. The lack of daily fear in my life liberates me to try to be the person I’d like to be.
Of all the women I met in Dilley, one stood out as uniquely bitter and rude. Before I met her, I had heard how she’d taken her anger out on my colleagues, accusing them of not caring, of taking their own citizenship for granted. Our interpreter told me that she hadn’t even wanted to translate what this woman was saying because it was so hurtful. Her resentment radiated, and it was unpleasant to be in her orbit.
We met in the hallway before her hearing, and I did my best to make small talk in my insufficient Spanish. I could sense her rancor. As we entered the courtroom, her pigtailed daughter burst into tears, heightening the sense of doom. The outcome seemed more and more certain as the hearing went on. The immigration judge asked whether a certain event made her afraid to return to her country No, she insisted, over and over. It wasn’t the abuse, there wasn’t a specific threat. La violencia está en todas partes. The country is riddled with violence. I remembered something a woman earlier in the week had asked. I don’t understand, she’d said. Do we have to wait to be hurt before we apply for asylum?
In the end, the judge cut to the chase. Are you afraid to return to your country? She finally answered Sí. He found, perhaps generously, that she passed the preliminary test in the asylum process, which means that she won’t be immediately deported. As the judge explained his decision through the interpreter, the woman didn’t smile. She’d been crying while she talked to him, and her daughter kept turning to touch her mother’s face, uncertain, expectant. The woman stopped crying while the judge issued his ruling but she didn’t appear relieved. Only when we were back in the hallway did the meaning of the proceeding sink in. As the interpreter and I explained the next step in the process, the issuance of a bond that she’d have to pay to be released, she finally smiled. Her shoulders relaxed and she started nodding, slowly at first but over and over. I had the strong impression that this was the first time anything in life had ever broken her way. I wondered how much of her personality had been chiseled by fear. If she wasn’t afraid, what kind of a person would she be?
A woman isn’t a criminal for wanting to protect herself and her children. A mother fleeing violence doesn’t need a correctional facility, she needs something more basic. I learned a lot of Spanish words during my week in Dilley: miedo, temor, hielera. I learned how to ask whether an assault was sexual. I learned at least three ways to say gang. But I had to look up the word for safety, segura, because I didn’t hear it once.
Written by Jennifer Sullivan, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer
If you want to volunteer to help mothers and children access due process 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.