After going through security, placing my phone in the locker outside the facility, and relinquishing my driver’s license in exchange for a one-day entry badge, I entered the trailer excited and anxious. As a business immigration attorney, though I was outside my comfort zone, I was ready for a new and meaningful experience.
Day one was a blur as I met with as many women as possible over the next ten hours to prepare them for their credible fear interviews. The women shared grueling stories of gang threats and domestic violence. Throughout the day, I learned a lot and became more comfortable with the process. Since I don’t speak Spanish, I looked between my colleague who was translating and the women with empathy. I regretted not being able to communicate verbally. I saw tears in the women’s eyes as they communicated with my Spanish-speaking colleague and wondered if it was normal to feel somewhat disconnected from the clearly emotional experience.
Our first day in Dilley culminated in a casual group discussion about the experience. My colleagues shared details about their day, the stories they heard, and how they felt. Some found it difficult to get through the interviews without crying; others teared up just speaking about the experience. I felt almost envious of their emotions and ashamed for having dry eyes. I went to bed, exhausted and drained from the day, and thinking about how I was falling behind in all my work at home.
On day two, we again arrived early, and spent the morning preparing more women for their credible fear interviews. It was hard to pull away for lunch when I saw so many more women still waiting for interview prep, but the extremely cold temperatures in the detention center pushed me outside to defrost my frozen limbs before the afternoon. During my lunch break, I checked my phone for work emails and addressed anything time sensitive. An escalation email over a one day delay in filing, inquiries about still pending cases, and an invoice challenge over a modest fee could wait until the evening. Ordinarily, I would race to respond to all emails immediately, but somehow the urgency of the circumstances faced at the detention center made some issues at the office seem less severe.
That afternoon, CARA desperately needed help updating records and scanning intake documents into the database. Where process was concerned, I knew I could add value and I was happy to help wherever I could contribute most. I developed an efficient process to scan documents into the system and worked as diligently as I would during H-1B cap season in mid-March. I took it upon myself to clear the backlog and as I worked, I started to feel like I had a real purpose and was making a difference.
As the week went on and I met with more and more women and their children, I found myself getting more invested in their stories and anxious to understand what would happen to them. The challenges they faced in their home countries, the dangers they confronted, and the pain they felt, left me with so much gratitude and appreciation for my own good fortune and a new perspective on priorities.
The gravity of the women’s experiences were even more pronounced against the backdrop of cartoons playing to distract their young children. By mid-week, even though I was still unable to connect with the women and children in the same way as my Spanish-speaking colleagues, I understood that the tone of my voice and my body language could help me to communicate in ways that might comfort them. I was able to escape the freezing-cold facility each night, but they couldn’t leave. The constant coughing and sneezing that had me racing for the hand sanitizer was the background noise of their every day. To me the facility was bitter cold and depressing, but compared to gang threats, extortion, and domestic violence, perhaps the cold, germ-infested detention center seemed safe. I was committed to helping as many of these families as I could, and as the week progressed I became more emotionally engaged in each moment and on each story.
On my very last day in Dilley, I met with a woman and her four-year-old boy. His big brown eyes shifted from the Netflix cartoons on my colleague’s laptop to his mother’s face as she shared the brutal story of her tortured past. Her child took a tissue from the box on the table, gently wiped away her tears, and told her, “Don’t cry, Mommy.” I found myself holding back tears of my own.
I boarded my flight home thinking about some of the women and children I met, wondering how they made it through their interviews, and hoping that they would soon be released. I was struck by how differently I felt upon my departure as I had when I arrived. I set out to have a meaningful experience for myself. I left hoping that I gave some of the women and children I met a chance to find freedom in our country and meaning of their own.
Written by Catherine Macris, AILA Member and 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 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.