“What are they being detained for, spilling milk?” Those are the words of my friend Dawn when I told her I was volunteering at “baby jail” for the week. Something about her response struck a nerve with me. To every sane, reasonable person in the U.S., the thought of putting a baby in jail is the most ridiculous proposition in the world. If someone said, “we should detain that baby for spilling his milk,” you would laugh, because of COURSE that’s not something we would do. The idea that there could be any reason to put a baby in jail is so far-fetched that this person couldn’t possibly be serious. But yet, this is what is happening, right here in the United States.
I recently returned from spending five days at the “South Texas Family Residential Center” in Dilley, Texas. The week I was there, approximately 2,000 children and their mothers were detained at the jail, most fleeing from horrific violence in Central America. The officials tell us it’s a “family residential center” where all their needs are being taken care of. However, let’s not mince words. The mothers and children here are in jail, where they have strict rules about when they can leave their cells (“rooms”), are assigned matching uniforms (though in different colors, how nice), and have to listen to instructions from a guard as to when and how to discipline their children. They are forced to eat unfamiliar food that their stomachs can’t handle, and to wait three to five or more hours in 90 to 100 degree Texas heat to see a doctor for any medical issues that arise. The doctor typically tells the women and children to “drink water” to alleviate any one of a plethora of illnesses. Pain relievers are often given in a single dose, and the women must come back and wait again if they need more. They are not free to leave the center, and can only visit with friends and family during set visiting hours. And that’s if their family can even make it out to see them – the center is located in southern Texas, over an hour from the nearest airport in San Antonio, and many, many hours away from most of their family members living in other states in the U.S.
The legal process they are going through is too complicated to explain in a few paragraphs, but I can now tell you from experience that the majority of them do have an avenue to gain legal status here through our asylum law and other humanitarian laws. However, they are being detained in Texas until they have proven enough about their case to an asylum official to allow them to be reunited with friends and family in other parts of the country, so they can continue preparing their full claim for protection before a judge. The problem is, without access to legal counsel (which many cannot afford considering their economic situations, as well as the remote location of the facility), it is next to impossible for these women to understand our complex asylum laws and prepare themselves to tell their life story to an asylum official. Understanding the specific part of their story that makes them more or less likely to prevail in an asylum claim is critical to knowing how much of the last 20-40 years need to be recounted in a 2-3 hour interview. That’s where the CARA project steps in. Staffed almost entirely by volunteers from across the country, CARA provides information and gives the women an opportunity to ask questions about the process. This is a great service, and is comprised of many wonderful volunteers, but it’s not enough.
For example, a typical day of mine in Dilley was spent having 3 or 4 “charlas” (or conversations) about the particular stage of the legal process these women were in. These lasted 20-30 minutes. I then met one on one with 10 to 15 women and their children to review their specific case in more detail. To give you some perspective, on a typical day in my Alexandria office, I do not schedule more than 2 or 3 client meetings because I want to make sure I have the time and mental capacity to be able to dedicate myself to my client and make sure he or she has the full opportunity to explain his or her story. Yet in Dilley, I was constantly moving from one client to the next, taking only about 30 minutes to hear one woman’s story before moving on to the next client. Many women had their children present with them while we talked, either because the child was too young to be left alone, or the mom or child too scared to be separated from each other. The children I saw ranged in age from one to 16 years old. Often times, either the mom or the child cried during their meeting with me. The children cried because, well, they’re children, lost in a new strange world (a.k.a., baby jail). The mothers cried because this was often the first time they’d spoken about the threats they received or the domestic violence they suffered. Their 1 and 2 year old children just looked up at them with sad eyes, not understanding what was going on or why their mother was so upset. It is next to impossible to provide competent legal advice in this situation. I was happy to be there serving in the limited capacity that I was, but it’s not enough.
I could go on and on about why mothers and children shouldn’t be in jail when the only thing they’ve done “wrong” is request protection from the U.S. government because their own government can’t provide it. I can tell you about how corrupt the police are in El Salvador, and how the gang violence in Honduras is the worst it’s ever been, and how Guatemala basically doesn’t have a government anymore. I can tell you how for all intents and purposes, the gangs are the governments in these small Central American countries, killing children and their families for refusing to take part in the violence. People who know me know that I can spend hours on these topics. But for your sake, I will stop here and just say again, it’s not enough.
I could not have gone to Dilley without the support from friends, family, and strangers. But what I need now from you is more than that. I need each of you to decide how you can best help end this. Can you donate money to the project? Can you write a letter to your Congressional delegation telling them it must end? Can you share information about what is happening, like this blog post, with your social media networks? If you speak Spanish, can you donate your time, as a lawyer or translator, to volunteering in Dilley? Because only when we all work together to help these moms and kids will it be enough. Only then, will it end.
Written by Lauren Vogt, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer
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 firstname.lastname@example.org– 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.