It was a trip nearly eight months in the making, my sojourn to Dilley. As Chapter Chair in summer 2014, I heard the requests for volunteers and donations. I focused on getting the word out and supporting members who volunteered. As a business and family immigration lawyer with little asylum law experience and no Spanish language fluency, I thought “how could I help?” But at last year’s AILA Annual Conference, I heard from several colleagues that those two seemingly insurmountable issues shouldn’t stop me from doing just that — helping. So I made the decision to go, and though I felt nervous, finding a few AILA buddies to join me helped to alleviate my worries.
Sure, my preparations required a bit more logistical wrangling than some. First, I had to identify a translator for the designated week. I remembered that Nick, my running buddy’s son, speaks Spanish. He was a recent college graduate, so I thought that he may have some time between taking the LSAT and heading to Argentina on a Fulbright Scholarship. He reviewed the materials on CARA and agreed to join me. Thus, all the pieces were in place. The final step was finding the time, but now it was a reality. I was still anxious but committed. I had to bone up on asylum law and procedures and spend some time familiarizing myself with the CARA database. I had to buy plane tickets and make reservations. And I had to reorganize my life so that it could be put on hold while I spent a week helping families.
Our group of AILA Washington State volunteers teamed up with the AILA Colorado Chapter. There were also AILA attorneys from Kansas City and New York. A couple of days before we left, I found out that other business and family immigration lawyers like me were going, in addition to immigration attorneys experienced in asylum law. Other volunteers included a professor, paralegals, a college student, and Spanish-speaking translators.
So we went to Dilley and here’s what we observed first-hand: they come, these mothers and children – fleeing terrible violence in Central America. They leave their homes and they walk, ride, train, or bus to a place where they think they will find safety and security. However, instead of allowing them to join family members while they await their day in court, many of these young mothers and their children are immediately detained when they arrive. The first friendly face they see, often weeks or months after fleeing home, is a CARA volunteer offering to help them.
These young women are scared. They are not lawyers. They are not able to explain the “nexus” of their persecution to one of the protected grounds to an asylum officer. They are not prepared to ask for bond from an immigration judge. They need us. They needed me and others like me.
One mother and child were back in the U.S. for the second time. I was shocked to learn that notwithstanding suffering terrible violence and persecution by gangs, the U.S. had sent her back. Despite moving to a new location in her country, the gangs pursued her. This time she was fortunate – if being detained in Dilley could be considered fortunate – because the CARA volunteers prepared her for the reasonable fear interview. This mother was subjected to two reasonable fear interviews and CARA volunteers were able to represent her at both. She was successful and is out of detention; she will finally have her day in court.
This story is just one among so many others. These women need our help – all of our help. And that’s where I came in, and where my amazing translator Nick came in. That’s where all the fantastic CARA volunteers and staff come in. WE make the difference. About 90% of mothers receive positive credible fear determinations after having advice and counsel from CARA volunteer attorneys. That means they will get a chance to pursue their case before an immigration judge. They will get that chance for safety and security, for a home where no one is beating or threatening them and where they will be free from gang violence.
I came back from Dilley reinvigorated and rededicated to the practice of immigration law, with a better understanding of asylum law and many new friends. But most of all, I came back more in touch with myself and knowing that while I have helped, I’m not yet done. One of the hardest parts of transitioning back to life and back to my immigration practice is knowing that there are still moms and kids being detained for days, weeks, or months at a time despite all the evidence that they are legitimate asylum seekers, not illegal border crossers. When explaining why I gave up a week of my life to go to South Texas, it all boiled down to one thing: I had no other choice.
It’s worth far more than a week of my life to know that I helped in my own small way. No matter what gives you pause, don’t hold yourself back. It is time for all of us to pitch in to end family detention. Volunteer with CARA, help out with a remote team, be a local resource for women and children who come to your city, tell your friends and loved ones about the inhumanity of family detention, do whatever you can do. If a business and family immigration lawyer who doesn’t speak Spanish can do it, so can you. Be a part of this. You won’t regret it.
Written by Carin Weinrich, Chair, AILA Washington State Chapter
How can you help?
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 – 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.