It was not until I sat on the plane, notebook open, pen in hand, when it hit me. The emotion came; I felt the tightening in my throat and tears forming in the corners of my eyes. It was only now that I could allow myself to fully process what I had just finally witnessed firsthand. Now that I was on my way back to my baby, the beautiful little being who has brought so much joy, definition, and purpose to my life, could I actually begin to reflect on the fact that I had just spent the week working inside a jail for babies.
Of course, I was very well-prepared for this trip. I am an immigration lawyer, specialized in representing women fleeing gender-based violence. And, for the past three and a half months I have been working from Washington DC as part of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project with the American Immigration Council on efforts to end the detention of immigrant mothers and children seeking refuge in the United States.
And so, I was well aware of the chaos that we fondly refer to as “OTG” – on the ground at the U.S. government’s family detention center in Dilley, Texas. And, if that sounds like military terminology, it should – it does feel like being “on the ground” in a constantly shifting war zone. It is more civilized than actual war, but, make no mistake, this is a battle.
Every day our OTG staff and volunteers fight mini-battles alongside each mother who arrives at the facility. Battles to prevent families from languishing in detention, subject to pervasive and arbitrary delays in the adjudication of their cases and their release and reunification with family members in the United States. Battles to ensure that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and guards, employees of the private prison contractor, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), treat mothers in a dignified manner, respecting their humanity. To ensure, for example, that ICE officers do not wake a mother and her child as they did this past week in the middle of the night, only to escort her outside, and rip up her immigration documents in front of her, telling her that their prior notification to her that she would be released from detention has been revoked. Battles to advocate for toddlers to receive adequate medical care when suffering with protracted illnesses and infections without antibiotics. Battles to insist that mothers who speak indigenous languages receive information and opportunities to communicate in their native languages. Each day is a series of battles to provide the most basic of services to these vulnerable yet courageous mothers and children who have risked everything to seek safety in the United States. The government insists on holding them en masse in this largest immigration detention facility (capacity 2400) in the small town of Dilley, Texas, far from urban centers where robust pro bono legal services exist and can be accessed.
It is here, in Dilley, that the government has determined that each mother who fears return to her home country must undergo a formal interview with an asylum officer to establish that she has a significant possibility of eligibility for asylum or other protection.
For each woman who walks in the door, regardless of the fact that we often do not know when she is coming, or until the very last minute when her interview will be scheduled, or whether we must make a court appearance for her the very next day, staff and volunteers greet her with genuine warmth. After a brief orientation to the process and the collection of basic biographic information, we prepare each mother for her interview or court hearing. Interruptions abound – that little voice so familiar to mothers worldwide, “I’m hungry mama, tengo hambre mama,” sometimes wailing, perhaps an untreated ear infection or a child separated from the tantalizingly colorful candy bars in the ill-placed vending machines. Despite this and the incredibly high volume of mothers we must see each day (up to 150), as quickly as possible we explain the process, pepper the client with questions to simulate an asylum interview or interaction with a Judge, and then help her to understand how her case fits into the convoluted, messy area of asylum law known as “particular social group” and “nexus.”
As an attorney specialized in gender-based asylum cases, it felt bizarre to be precisely formulating and articulating a particular social group within minutes of meeting a client. In practice at the Tahirih Justice Center and supervising students at Georgetown University Law Center’s clinical program, crafting the particular social group and establishing the nexus of the harm to that protected ground under our asylum laws was often the very last piece of the legal case to come together. This penultimate moment of case preparation is often after painstaking hours of client interviewing, declaration drafting, generating statements from family members and witnesses, thorough research on country conditions, and consultation with an expert on the client’s country of origin. That a woman should be forced to undergo an interview in which she must be able to establish that her case meets these rigorous and confusing standards so soon after she has fled from danger, completed an often treacherous and exhausting journey to reach our borders, been apprehended or in contact with often unsympathetic, and generally armed border patrol agents, and placed in a secure, unlicensed facility, is not only unjust, but also a ludicrous waste of government resources. Close to ninety percent, or more, of these mothers receive a positive determination after their first interview. CARA Project staff on the ground estimate that closer to ninety-six or ninety-eight percent of the mothers receive positive results after review by a Judge or advocacy resulting in a second successful interview.
And so, as I travel back to my little one, the tears come. Exhausted as I am by the pace of the work on the ground, I am unable to sleep. My tears come as a mother who cannot imagine living with my baby in a trailer camp, under floodlights, behind intimidating metal fences, in a desolate area in South West Texas for even one day, let alone weeks on end, or as the government would have us believe, a reasonable period of an average of twenty days for “processing.”
But, my tears also come as I consider the horrific waste the baby jail, formally known as the “South Texas Family Residential Center,” generates. Waste on so many levels.
The waste of volunteer and staff time – the tireless efforts, resources, and energy poured into this place by our highly competent and compassionate team to ensure that these mothers are not deserted and left to the whim of ICE. If not for this facility and the government’s insistence on detaining these families, these countless hours and dedicated attention could be better directed to helping women navigate the court system, connecting them with legal and social services needed to present their legal case and to integrate and contribute to their communities in the United States.
The waste of highly trained asylum officers detailed to Dilley who could instead be working at asylum offices nationwide to wade through the horrendous backlog of affirmative asylum applications, filed by survivors of torture and trauma and those in fear for their lives, many separated for years from their loved ones overseas who remain in harms way.
The waste of immigration judges, who could turn their attention to their overloaded dockets — the backlog of cases before the Executive Office for Immigration Review — asylum seekers and immigrants patiently waiting in limbo for their day in court.
The waste of ICE agents and Customs and Border Patrol, who could instead be focused on intercepting and disrupting human and drug trafficking operations.
The waste of tax-payer dollars and government resources in detaining these children and their mothers, at a cost of more than $1000 a day for a family of three.
What a waste, in the end, because these mothers overwhelmingly pass the threshold test to which they are subjected, mandating their release, and enabling them continue on their journey to safety and protection.
But the biggest and most unforgivable waste of all, that can never be quantified and never re-gained, is the loss of freedom – for however many days, whether seventeen or forty seven, of a toddler, like my daughter, who is eighteen months old today. Like my daughter, fortunate to have been born into stability and safety in the United States, these little ones should be free, with their mothers, to delight in discovering all that they encounter in the world around them. Whether that’s the leaves on the trees as we enter November, turning from green, to red, to orange, yellow, and eventually to brown, or noticing these incredible creatures we call birds and how their wings help them to fly. Those magical moments, where your child is soaking up their daily surroundings, are lost for these families. Instead, these curious toddlers waste their days in a barren landscape, with uniformed guards, a sad trailer labeled “corte,” and hours of waiting for legal appointments or inadequate medical care.
Family detention is unnecessary, unjust, and wrong. And it must, must come to an end.
Written by Lindsay Harris, AILA Member and American Immigration Council Legal Fellow
How can you help?
Late last week, a state court in Texas issued a temporary restraining order, preventing the temporary licensing of the two facilities holding mothers and children in Texas. A preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled for Nov. 12. This is wonderful news, but temporary, unless you make the case to the Texas Department of Family Protective Services about why they shouldn’t license the centers. Find out how through this Take Action page on aila.org.
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 email@example.com – we could really use your help.
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.