I returned to the alternate world of family detention at the end of June. It was both the most heartbreaking and most empowering thing I have ever done during my career as an immigration attorney. Trying my best to help these mothers and their children is wrenching.
The family detention facility is one of three here in the U.S. – the one I went to is located in Dilley, Texas, a remote area difficult for volunteers or visitors to get to. My first day, I met with eight women. At that moment, there were about 1,900 more mothers and children in the facility. Although each woman had her own reason for fleeing her country, all of them had come to the same conclusion: only in the United States could they find safety and security. Instead, they were placed into a detention facility with their children, denied access to medical care, and told they would only be able to leave the facility if they paid a bond.
One of the women was from El Salvador and had been in custody for over a month with her young son. I told her that her bond hearing had been scheduled and would take place in two days. She broke down crying with relief. She had spent the last month looking forward to that moment, the chance of freedom on her horizon. I told her she had to get her bond documents to us quickly so she would have a chance to get a lower bond. She said she would talk to her aunt immediately and get those last documents in. She was so relieved and happy. After she left, I began to cry too – her sheer relief and happiness was contagious.
The minimum bond an immigration judge can set is $1,500 – compared to the $20,000+ bonds that the government originally set when this inhumane, untenable incarceration of kids and moms began at the Obama Administration’s behest more than a year ago. While the mothers and children are held in South Texas, the judges in Miami hear the cases by videoconference – one of the women, who I had never met before I began representing her for bond, started crying when she learned she got the minimum bond; I started quietly crying too. I just hoped the judge and trial attorney in Miami couldn’t tell I was crying via the video screen. That mother should never have been jailed in the first place, but at least she is getting out with her young son. The young El Salvadoran woman I had met two days earlier also received the minimum bond. When I spoke with her outside the courtroom after her hearing, she gave me a big hug and thanked me for helping her get released. She called my office a few weeks later and told me she had made it safely to New York and was living with her aunt.
On my last day at Dilley, I met an extraordinary woman who fled El Salvador after gangs threatened her life and her son’s life. It took them two months to get to the border – they walked, rode buses, stayed in migrant shelters – until they got to the United States. She only had $300 with her and left behind her husband and three adult children. When I asked her why she fled to the U.S., she told me it was when the gangs made it clear they were going to kill her son. She said it wasn’t even a choice. I can’t emphasize enough how ridiculous it is that the government says these are economic migrants. They are doing what any mother would do – they are trying to protect their children from horrific violence.
I urge the public to stand up for the kids and mothers shamefully and needlessly incarcerated by the government. Tell President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security to cease the inhumane practice of family detention. These women are fleeing from danger to safety; our government should respect that, follow our own asylum laws, and free these families.
Written by CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer Kara Lynum
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 this fall, particularly the week of October 11 and after.
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.