In the days following the opening of the Artesia detention center, I remember reading in awe on Facebook about the lawyers that were driving out and banging on the gates, demanding to be let in, insisting these mothers and children be allowed access to counsel. I followed, in the news, through social media, and via updates from friends, the developments as attorneys took over these cases and won. I listened to the stories of those who flew out to help. In the back of my mind, I wished I could be part of it all –but I had a demanding job, a daughter who was not yet a year old at the time, and countless other reasons, or so I told myself, that made putting my life on pause and getting on a plane to fly to the middle of the New Mexico desert impossible.
Time passed. The Artesia detention center shut down. But then the detention center in Karnes City, TX, opened, and then one in Dilley, TX, opened soon after. Dilley had a planned total capacity of 2,400 beds. This was more than 12 times larger than the Berks facility in Pennsylvania, which had been the only one in existence before Artesia and holds fewer than 200 individuals. The idea of the federal government incarcerating thousands of mothers and children at a time was inconceivable, but it was happening.
I followed the creation of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. I made half-hearted attempts to maybe see if I could go. But it was never the right time. Things were busier than ever at work. Financially the trip would be tight. I worried about the emotional impact of traveling alone, halfway across the country, and surviving 14-plus gut-wrenching hours per day.
But it kept gnawing at me, the urge to help and pitch in. I mentioned to my friend Carmen that I wanted to go –and she said “Let’s do it.” I mentioned to my husband that I was thinking about it, and he said “Go.” All of a sudden, I wasn’t doing this alone. But the biggest change agent was my daughter. She wasn’t a baby anymore – she was a bright, curious, inquisitive, chipper two-and-a-half-year-old. Suddenly, I realized that in ten years or so, she is going to learn about this chapter in our history, that she’ll know I worked in immigration advocacy and she’ll ask me what I did about the fact that our government imprisoned and tried to mass deport refugee mothers and children. I want to be able to say that I went there and tried to help.
Now that the funds have been raised and the trip dates have been set, I should turn to whatever I can do to get ready. But the truth is, I don’t know how to prepare for this. I’ve been told the experience will be life changing – how could it not? – but how do you prepare yourself for that? I’ve been a lawyer for ten years. Seven of those have been spent in asylum offices, immigration courts, and immigration detention centers. The last three have been spent advocating to the city, state, and federal governments for better rights and protections for immigrants. And then there is the obvious question: isn’t this why I went to law school in the first place? I never thought I might save a life by becoming a lawyer, but I had vague, unformed ideas about wanting to work “to do good.” To succeed, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, because one life breathed easier for my having lived.
There are a few concrete things I can do. I’m taking every opportunity I can to brush up on my Spanish and to update myself on case-law and courtroom methods. I’m reading the testimonials of those who’ve been “On The Ground.” I’m scouring the AILA website for tips and advice. And most of all, I’m looking forward to the day I step off the plane and get to hug my daughter tight after that week-long separation, knowing that she inspired me to succeed.
Written by Camille Mackler, AILA Member and Soon-to-be CARA Volunteer
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.