I journeyed to Dilley, Texas, in December to volunteer at the South Texas Family Residential Center, where up to 2,400 women and children seeking asylum in the United States are detained. Each day, we arrived at the facility before 8am and stayed for more than 12 hours, and my heart was broken over and over again. It felt like we were running nonstop from dawn until midnight, step by step trying to help these vulnerable families.
As a legal volunteer at Dilley, I met with more than 50 women and their children and heard their stories of why they left their countries and fled to the U.S., so that I could prepare them for their credible fear interviews (CFI) in front of an Asylum Officer. Passing the CFI is the first step in a successful asylum case. Once the women and children detained at Dilley pass the CFI, they are generally released. Depending on how they entered the U.S., they could be forced to wear an ankle monitor or pay a bond ranging from $1,500 to more than $5,000.
I spoke with women who fled abusive husbands, family members who molested them, and political oppression. I spoke with women who left in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their children in their arms. I heard stories of gang violence, especially involving the Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gangs.
I met with a 13-year-old girl who cried during our entire interview because a gang in her area threatened to kill her family if she did not become a “girlfriend” of the gang. Being a “girlfriend” means you are the gang member’s property. You may be raped, forced to have sex with various members of the gang, and forced to perform acts of violence on other community members. The gangs threaten to harm or murder their family members if the girlfriends do not obey. The girlfriends cannot go to the police because the police are either working with the gangs, or are afraid of the gangs themselves.
One woman told me that the gangs not only tried to harm her, they also harmed her two-year-old daughter by pouring boiling hot water down her daughter’s chest. During our interview, her daughter was sleeping in her arms. She lifted the baby’s shirt to show me the burns. We cried together during that interview and I told her how brave she was.
My week at Dilley was very difficult. Each story I heard affected me deeply. Each child I saw imprisoned caused me pain. Every time a woman I met with passed her CFI, I cried tears of happiness. It was a draining week, and the work is not easy. It requires a warrior. I was so impressed by the volunteer attorneys, but even more by those on the ground. The attorneys who do this work on the ground full-time are running a marathon every day.
Written by Samantha Lloyd, AILA Member and Dilley Pro Bono Project 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.