Stefan Babich recently traveled to Dilley, Texas, to volunteer with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. In this two-part blog post, he walks readers through his first day of volunteering and the mothers whose stories he heard. To read Part 2, click here.
What was it like, walking into Dilley for the first time? Can you set the scene for us?
I stand in a long line facing a metal detector. My belt, coat and laptop are sitting in a gray tray behind me. I might be waiting to pass through airport security, except for the fact that my cell phone has been left in the car out in the parking lot, safely hidden beneath a blanket and hopefully protected from the hot Texas sun.
No cell phones are allowed inside this facility, because cell phones take pictures, and someone doesn’t want us sharing any pictures of what we’re about to see.
I’ve come to Dilley, Texas with a team of immigration lawyers and other volunteers—interpreters who will help the lawyers communicate with the Spanish-speaking asylum seekers waiting inside this detention center’s walls.
All around me, men and women are taking off their jackets, checking their backpacks for any contraband, like hand sanitizer, lotion, or coloring books.
“Coloring books?” I ask the man beside me, a member of my team. “Why not coloring books?” A friend and fellow interpreter had thought to bring coloring books for the many children inside the detention center.
No one really knows for sure. One reason—the best guess anyone seems to have—is that there wouldn’t be enough coloring books to go around, and some of the children would have to go without. That might lead to jealousy, which in turn might lead to upset children.
It sounds reasonable enough, until I pass through security into the main hall of the building. It’s a space built in the style of a high-school cafeteria, with round tables, plastic chairs, and two vending machines tucked to one side, one proudly bearing the unmistakable Coca-Cola logo. I see a child of about six or seven make his way to that machine. He presses one button after another, reaching into the machine for a soda that will never come. His face crumples. After a while, he moves away, and a girl, even younger, takes his place. Still no luck. She starts to cry.
So much for not upsetting children.
The pictures in the front hall show images of laughing kids chasing a soccer ball over a dirt field, of smiling women eating and talking together. And, truth be told, despite the vending machines, it’s not that terrible a place—at least from what I can see of it, which admittedly isn’t much, since the guards won’t let us beyond this one room.
There’s just no getting around the fact that it’s a prison for women and children. And babies. Yes, that’s right; United States tax dollars are paying for a private, for-profit prison that incarcerates infants. Medical care is spotty; I soon meet a girl with a scar above her upper lip. Her mother informs me she cut herself when she fell playing—maybe chasing one of those soccer balls in the picture out in the security room. The mother informs me that her daughter waited, bleeding, for five hours to see a doctor only to be handed the detention center’s most common and versatile remedy—a few ice cubes.
What is the role of a volunteer? What is working with the mothers and children like?
When these mothers and children are detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) at the border, they are interviewed by immigration officers. Transcripts of these interviews were provided to us, the volunteers of the CARA Project; the transcripts seem to lend credence to the traditional narrative of the immigrant seeking a better life. “Why did you come to America?” one question reads. In the majority of cases, the answer given is something along the lines of “to work” or “for a better life for myself and my children.” “Do you have a fear of returning to your country?” Usually, the answer is a stark and simple “no.”
But when you speak with the women themselves, a curious pattern presents itself.
“Why did you leave your country?” I asked one woman, holding up her immigration sheet before her eyes. “It says you’re not afraid to go back.”
“I never said that,” she told me.
“You never said that? So you are afraid to go back?”
She gave me a look that suggested she couldn’t quite comprehend what I was saying. She told me that she left because gang members painted death threats on the walls of her house. She didn’t want to leave—she was a successful business owner in her home country—but it’s hard to run a shop when you are being extorted for all your earnings by the same type of people who force ten year old boys to commit murder and rape ten year old girls.
Though there’s no way to prove it for sure, most of the immigration documents appear to have no factual basis. I have to wonder if some of these supposed interviews even took place; what this mother told me is reflected nowhere in her immigration documents.
My job, and the job of the immigration lawyer with whom I worked, was to get the real story.
To read Part 2 of this blog post, click here.
Written by Stefan Babich, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer
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 and through the end of the year.
If you would like to donate funds please see the American Immigration Council’s page dedicated to the fundraising effort.
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.