On Sunday, my kids will wake me up extra early and play “Las Mañanitas” to wish me a Happy Father’s Day while handing me handmade Father’s Day cards. They’ll give me extra hugs and tell me they love me. That’s what’s done on Father’s Day in my house. It’s nothing special, though it means a lot to me personally.
But there are a lot of fathers out there who won’t get that chance. Their kids won’t give them that extra hug or make them breakfast, because the Obama Administration is refusing to treat Central American families fleeing violence as refugees. Instead, they are treating them as illegal border crossers and separating families at the border – fathers are torn away and unable to protect or comfort their families, while mothers and children are sent terrified to incarceration.
I have served as a volunteer at both the Artesia and Dilley family detention facilities. I have seen the painful toll that detention places on these mothers and children, and as a father, it’s hard to stomach.
I’m not the only father feeling these emotions though – we recently asked other CARA volunteer dads to tell us about their experiences. Here are some of their reflections:
“The Texas rain creates red mud that gets tracked into the detention facility. In the waiting room, the lines between white tiles get the worst of it and leave rusted tracks. I remember the little girl sitting on the white, linoleum checkerboard floor. The tiles outlined in red. She was playing with Iron Man and Spider Man toys. She could only have been two, maybe three years old, and sat waiting for a playmate. A father would have known what to do and how to play with super-heroes. But there aren’t any fathers in Dilley, and the only super-heroes are made of plastic…If you want to see a father or super-hero, you best look at the toys left behind on the ground or the television in la guarderia. If you want to know a father, go find some paperwork where someone’s name is written on it. Those are the only places where you will find them. There ain’t no fathers in the detention center…There’s only red mud and a lot of lonely children waiting for Superman.” Terry Eagan wrote those words and the image they convey is exactly what we are greeted with at Dilley.
From Thomas Schenk, a father and grandfather, ex-U.S. military officer and a practicing attorney outside of the immigration field, we learn that he tries to “show the mothers and children the ropes of a life raft which is the asylum law within our legal system. They must grab the ropes and pull themselves and their children up onto the raft and navigate the rapids of the asylum process. My hope is to teach them basic survival skills and to comfort them. I say to them ’Welcome to the United States.’ I tell them I admire their bravery and their devotion to their children. I say that I came to help them and that I understand their situation because I am a father and a grandfather. I tell them there are others here who, like me and the CARA Project team and others, want to continue to help them get clear of the process so that they can see life and opportunity illuminated by the great beacon of freedom and hope that is the United States of America.”
Another volunteer, Peter Robinson, came to Dilley with his daughter, a new immigration lawyer in her first year of practice. He writes, “I wish there was some way that the fathers who play a role in the immigration system, from judges, to the asylum officers, to the policy makers, could take a minute at this time of year and think of how the incarceration of these children and their mothers deprive those families of the same joys that we experience with our own children.”
Volunteer Daniel Engel, a father of three and grandfather to two, commented on the pain of family separation, writing, “Many of these women and children have been, upon arrival to the United States, separated from their partners, the fathers of their children. It is a sad truth that these partners and fathers, who struggle with their families to escape the sort of unimaginable violence and hardship that exists in their countries of origin, and who so desperately need the kind of support that they can and should get in our country, enter our country, only to be torn from the very people who provide them with the incentive — the motivation — to continue their struggles not just to escape, but to create a productive life for those most important to them. We can all well imagine how agonizing it must be for them to be separated like this from their loved ones, with whom they have travelled so many difficult miles to get to our land. For us to add to their already existing pain and anguish, by separating families on their arrival, is not what our country is about.”
And finally, Bill Fingerett, a family law attorney who often deals with custody disputes, commented that in those disputes, the attorneys and judges almost never meet the kids. He wrote, “In Dilley, I met the kids. They were lethargic in many cases, sometimes sleeping on their mother’s lap or on the floor next to their mother. They were all sick. They learned to use an item of clothing to wipe their nose. Seeing a doctor for an ear infection required filling out paperwork and waiting a couple of days for something stronger than liquid Advil. The kids outside of institutions draw pictures of their homes, trees, clouds, their parents, pets, etc. I met a 10-year-old boy named Hector and his mother. I gave Hector a Marks A Lot and some paper so he could draw pictures while I met with his mother. He took the Marks A Lot and began violently pounding the paper, making nothing but large dots. An exhibition of anger and frustration to be sure. I took the picture home as a reminder of what we are trying to accomplish.”
I experienced many of the same things. When preparing a mother for her credible fear interview, she had her 7-year-old daughter restlessly hanging on to her and destroying her concentration. I remembered when my daughter gets in those moods, that what she responds to is a task to do. I quickly drew my version of Garfield the Cat and asked her to draw it. She took up the challenge. After she drew Garfield, she came back and asked for another character. We went back and forth drawing cartoon characters. This kept her busy while her mother told me about her journey to this country and how she was raped by a smuggler after crossing the river into the United States. As a father, I saw the void present in the young girl’s heart. Every time, I drew a picture, her face lit up. The impact that the absence of her father had on her was clear. The stark similarities between the detained girl’s behavior and my daughter’s behavior was a strong reminder that we are all the same and we need to help each other through difficult times.
Why am I sharing these words? Why am I trying to evoke your emotions? It is because I need each and every one of you to look into your hearts to see what you can offer this fight – whether it is legal knowledge, or Spanish language or indigenous dialects expertise, or fundraising help. I ask that you make a commitment to fight this scourge of family detention over the next year and seek to end it before another Father’s Day rolls around.
I urge the fathers who work for the Obama Administration at every level, including President Obama himself, to consider these testimonials.
This isn’t right. This isn’t justice. Family detention is inhumane. No se vale. It needs to end.
Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, AILA President and CARA Volunteer
How can you help?
If you want 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.