Recently, Rochelle G. volunteered at the Dilley facility where nearly 2,000 mothers and children are incarcerated despite their status as asylum-seekers. Brian Hoffman, lead attorney for the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project which brings volunteers from all over the nation to help in this remote South Texas town, asked Rochelle about her experience:
Can you describe what you saw for us?
Small round tables surrounded by four plastic chairs. Women holding crying and coughing toddlers sat in chairs against the back wall. A children’s room with colored pages torn out of a coloring book papering the walls, and a large screen tv affixed to the top of one of the room’s corners, playing Frozen. Signs on the walls of the outer room cautioned children in both English and Spanish about sexual abuse with colorful illustrations informing them about which parts of their bodies were off limits to others. At first glance, I could have been in a pediatrician’s waiting room.
The children all seemed ill enough to further that illusion. Every child seemed to have a wheezy cough and a congested chest. Most of the toddlers lay listlessly in their mothers’ arms, pitiful caricatures of rag dolls.
Outside wasn’t any better. Rows of trailers surrounded by barbed wire in a barren, muddy field in the relentless heat and humidity of Southern Texas. It’s absurd to think that so much money is being spent to inadequately house and care for women and children from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico who fled to the United States seeking asylum from domestic violence, gang violence and extortion. It seemed disturbingly similar to the Texas State Prison down the road. Yet the only crime these women had committed had been to enter the United States in search of a safe haven.
What struck you the most about Dilley?
One of the first things I noticed was the distinct lack of medical care. Every time the women were asked about how they were addressing their children’s health issues, they responded that they had gone to the infirmary and that the staff there had told them to give the child water and to let it rest, despite their protestations that they had already been doing that for ten days. One woman, whose son seemed gravely ill, said that she had even offered to pay for medication for him, but her request had been denied. She lamented her fate and noted that in her home country she would at least have been able to obtain medication for her child. Another child was finally hospitalized after he had refused food for eleven days. When he arrived at the hospital, a legitimate healthcare facility outside the detention center, the staff noted that if he had been brought in even an hour later, he would have suffered severe brain damage.
What surprised you most about the mothers?
As I sat in on interviews and spoke to the women, my stereotypes shattered. Women spoke of holding good jobs as bankers or computer engineers. I heard of a husband who was a pilot, and beautiful homes. They spoke of going to college for advanced degrees, running track and their own businesses and of their fears for their children who were being recruited by gangs, persecuted by gangs, and threatened with violence.
I was ashamed that I had assumed that most of the women had suffered severe poverty and worked at low paying jobs in their home countries because they had not had the opportunity to receive an education beyond middle school. Although, this was certainly true for some of the women, many of whom spoke of horrendous domestic violence, it was only a small part of the greater Latino refugee story.
One woman, whom I interviewed, spoke about the mortgage she had taken out to open her own hair salon and told me that she attended college at night for a computer engineering degree while raising her three children. “I didn’t want to leave. My business was doing well and I was on my way to realizing my dream of becoming a computer engineer. But the gangs threatened to kill me and my family.” I encouraged her not to let go of her dream and to obtain her computer engineering degree by attending college in the United States.
What would you tell potential volunteers?
This is one of the hardest and best things you will ever do. Ever. In your life. There are moments of extreme sadness and overwhelming joy and throughout it all you know you are making a difference. A joyous memory: on my last day at Dilley, a client’s sister was finally able to pay her bond and to send bus tickets. The sheer joy on her face as she shared the news with me and invited me to come visit her and her family gave me an immense sense of fulfillment. Until every mother and every child is free, we cannot stop this work. We need all of you to join in the fight to #EndFamilyDetention.
If you are an AILA member, law student, paralegal, or translator, 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.