The beginning of a young lawyer’s career is, naturally, a time of many first experiences. Many of these “firsts” are so nerve-wracking they churn your stomach: the first time you step into court with the weight of someone’s future on your shoulders, the first time you stand up next to a client and wait with bated breath for the judge to hand down a sentence, and the first time a witness changes his testimony on the stand. Some of them are utterly thrilling: the first client you free from detention, the first trial you win, and the first child client who says she wants to be a lawyer when she grows up because of you. Still others are utterly soul-shattering: the first time you visit a refugee detention center, the first time you watch a judge set a $25,000 bond for a destitute young mother and her children who sob inconsolably and beg not to be sent back to their abuser, and the first time you need to ask a guard for diapers in a detention center.
For me, among all of these experiences there are two firsts in particular that stand out for me, one recent and the other a little more remote.
The older of these firsts was the first time one of my clients breastfed her infant child during a hearing at a family detention center. Sadly, it was far from the last time I would have a detained nursing mother as a client. The many months I spent at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas, after that first week as a volunteer at a similar facility in Artesia, New Mexico, brought me face to face with dozens of nursing mothers whose only “crime” was desperately seeking safety for their children and freedom from the horrors of the rapidly imploding Northern Triangle.
The more recent of these “firsts” is a revelation that, for me, has been a long time coming: the first time I allowed myself to realize that America is not “the good guys,” and that in fact, we’re far from it.
As a child of the 1980s, I grew up watching early morning cartoons like “G.I. Joe.” There, the “Joes” were the undisputed “good guys” in every way: urging kids to stay in school and off drugs, fighting “terrorists” motivated only by a megalomaniacal hunger for power, and taking the moral high road at every opportunity.
Like many kids of my generation, that message stuck. I grew up knowing that America is the “good guys” and that promoting justice and fighting evil are core values of our country. After spending the last two years inside several immigrant family detention centers, I no longer believe that.
I have seen an America where terrified mothers nurse their sick infants in detention centers the size of small towns, all while generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue for giant for-profit prison corporations that, in turn, lobby our national leaders for more and more detention. I have seen an America where listless and depressed children barely eat for days, not knowing whether they’ll be sent back to the murder capital of the world or kept forever in the giant prison where they wander aimlessly. I have seen an America whose “law enforcement” agents act with utter impunity to coerce, intimidate, threaten, and generally treat with open contempt young families who want nothing more than to live in a place where the fear of death doesn’t hang over them like a constant pall.
That it is not my America, and I don’t think it’s yours either. Many of you have already contributed to the efforts of the CARA Project to end family detention. Many of you have felt the heartbreak along with me, as nearly two years after Artesia closed, the Obama administration shows no signs of backing down even amid mounting evidence that it has always known family detention is illegal. I’m writing to remind you all of one critical fact of which I am absolutely convinced: it is we and not the administration who hold the moral high ground when it comes to family detention. The Obama administration’s actions when it comes to family detention are shameful, and utterly un-American. Let’s do all we can not to let them forget it.
Written by Brian Hoffman, AILA Member, CARA Volunteer, and Former Managing Attorney for the Dilley Pro Bono Project
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 Project page – we could really use your help.
To watch videos of 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.