After having volunteered last year at the family detention in Artesia, New Mexico representing immigrant women and children refugees, we knew we had to go to Dilley, Texas to bear witness to the largest family detention center in the United States and to do our part to help. Presently, close to 1800 or more women and children are detained at this privately-operated prison.
Family detention refers to the incarceration of immigrant women and children during their immigration process. It is a shameful practice that the Obama administration revived in response to the rise in individuals crossing the border in the summer of 2014. It is largely thought to be a political misfire by the administration to appear tough on the border in order to face less opposition in the reception of Executive Action, the implementation of which is presently ensnarled in a lengthy lawsuit. If it was a political miscalculation, there is certainly no rationale for its continued existence except for the tremendous power of lobbyists and the greed of investors in private prisons. Moreover, there is simply no justification to incarcerate women and children seeking protection in the United States. The vast majority of the influx of people crossing the border are seeking asylum from violence and conditions in their home country that do not support life. From their stories corroborated by evidence and news and reports, some countries in Central America appear on the brink of societal collapse. For a week, we listened to stories of horrific domestic and gang violence, sexual assault, child abuse, and death threats. To take people who have suffered through these traumas and the dangerous journey the United States and incarcerate them is unconscionable. Simply put, the detention of women and children does not reflect American values.
Mexican Shelter Visits:
We came to Texas a couple days early to head to the border and into Mexico to visit some migrant shelters that house recently deported Mexican immigrants and others still making their journey to the United States.
We first visited a YMCA-run youth shelter in Piedras Negras, the town in Mexico on the other side of the border from the U.S. town, Eagle Pass. The youth shelter receives unaccompanied Mexican children who have been returned from the United States and need to be reunited with family members throughout Mexico. While the facility was pleasant, the dejection and loneliness the children must experience arriving there is heart-wrenching. It is hard to fathom the situations that provoked children to try to make it the United States and how things went wrong such that the children were returned to Mexico. We heard of a child who had to watch his mother die on the treacherous border-crossing. Another child’s family members were shot in the legs in front of him for refusing to pay an extra extortion demanded by the coyotes.
Next we visited “Casa Digna” (Casa del Migrante Frontera Digna, Home of the Migrant, Dignified Border) also in Piedras Negras. In sharp contrast to the spacious and clean facility for children, Casa Digna was cramped and rundown. While we were there, dozens of men arrived having recently been deported. When the United States deports people to Mexico, a Mexican government agency (Repatriacion Humana, “Human Repatriation”) at the border receives them and they are given the option to get a ride to one of these adult migrant shelters. The shelters are not government run, rather operated by churches dependent on donations. One of the biggest problems reported at these migrant shelters is that often U.S. immigration officials destroy individuals’ identifications and do not return the little money people had on them such that when they are deported to Mexican border, they cannot board a bus or plane in Mexico to get to their actual home. This final indignity on top of the deportation means that many deportees depend on these migrant shelters for a few days for shelter and food as they wait for new identity documents. This situation makes border towns all the more dangerous – to have a large, stagnant population of vulnerable people who but for their lack of identifications because U.S. officials destroyed them would be on their way home. Central American and other Mexican migrants also pass through Casa Digna on their way to the United States. After recent mass graves found in Mexico of Central American refugees presumably killed by human trafficking networks, the shelter is now required to register its inhabitants in case their information is later needed to find someone. The shelters face complex security concerns and have strict curfews and rules for opening the gate to enter, tall walls with glass spikes on the top, and video surveillance. Coyotes have tried to come back for people with dubious and nefarious intentions for unfinished jobs and unpaid debts.
Looking at these men recently dropped off by the Mexican government, one could not help but think this must be one of the lowest points in their lives. They sat in plastic chairs in the patio of the migrant shelter batting flies. Our privilege to “visit” the shelter knowing the next day we would easily drive across the border back the United States without incident oozed as the humility of the men was crushing.
We were impressed at Casa Digna, a Catholic run shelter, that, despite their lack of resources, they were constructing a separate small bedroom for LGBT migrants to feel more secure in their stay.
After Casa Digna, we drove along the Mexican side of the Rio Grande to the Mexican border town of Acuña. The river that separates the United States from Mexico is a strong reminder of the arbitrary political and geographical construct of the border that can be so determinative in the type of life that one has. In Acuña, we were received by a wonderful woman whom we connected with through contacts from our time in Artesia. She took us to a third migrant shelter, Casa Emmaus, which is located in walking distance from the branch of Repatriación Humana that receives deportees in Acuña. Because the train (“la Bestia”) that migrants take from Central America to the U.S. border does not pass through Acuña, there are many fewer immigrants trying to cross there. At Casa Emmaus, we talked to two teenage girls who had been returned from the border, one had tried many times to enter the United State unsuccessfully. I asked what was next for them and immediately regretted my words. The next day our host took us around to see the maquiladores in Acuña which are the main economic livelihood of the city. She also showed us La Presa de la Amistad, a giant manmade lake that divides the United States and Mexico. We then made our way to Dilley, Texas to begin our volunteer work.
The facility in Dilley is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private prison corporation, publicly traded on the stock market. You too can invest in the deprivation of liberty of refugees. The home to at least two other detention centers, Dilley’s town motto is “A Slice of the Good Life.” It has a population of around 4,000. It is about an hour and half from San Antonio and, apart from the two-person permanent staff of the pro bono project that assembled in April, there are no legal services in Dilley. Like Artesia, this project is dependent on leapfrog representation of lawyers who come in on Sunday and leave the following Saturday. Unlike Artesia which had between 400-600 women and children at its height, Dilley has over 1800 and climbing. The mission of legal representation of these women and children for this project is behemoth. The two permanent staff possess awe-inspiring energy, efficiency, intelligence, creativity, compassion, patience and determination.
The Orwellian nature of the CCA facility and the immigration policy that guides it pervades all aspects of the detention center. The CCA facility in Dilley is comprised of acres of trailers. Within the complex, the facility is divided into “neighborhoods” with names like “Red Bird,” “Brown Bear,” and “Green Frog,” as a colleague pointed out, as if out of a fractured nursery rhyme. The women are “residents” of these neighborhoods, not detainees or inmates in trailers or cells or pods. The legal team works in the visitation trailer. Some women and children may have to walk more than a half mile to get to the attorneys. Although the conditions of this massive complex did appear to be better that those of Artesia, while we were there we learned of a new policy that the CCA officers have been coming into the trailers where the women and children sleep at 11pm and turning on the lights and making them sleep with the lights on, a tactic used on Guantanamo detainees. The legal team is not allowed to bring in cell phones and must bring in their own hotspots to have internet access. Access to counsel is a reoccurring theme. Just the weeks before we arrived, female attorneys were denied entrance to the facility because of underwire bras. The courts are also trailers and operate via Video Television Conference (VTC). The judges and government attorneys are in immigration court in Miami, Florida, while the volunteers sit in at a table inside the court trailer in Dilley. Another Orwellian feature of what is happening in Dilley that we confronted in women’s individual sagas is the misnomer by the Obama administration of “family detention.” Many of these women and children entered with their partners, or parents, or siblings, or nephews and nieces. Upon apprehension, these other family members were stripped away and bused or flown to different detention facilities, breaking apart the family, further disabling a family from presenting their claim for protection particularly when the entire family was fleeing persecution. At Dilley (and Artesia), family units were broken down into simply pairs of women and children.
Like Artesia, our volunteer roles included conducting intakes and orientations to the women and children, prepping and occasionally accompanying the women to interviews with the asylum office, and representing them in requesting bond before the immigration officials and the immigration court. The women and children arrive to Dilley in different procedural postures of their case. Many are waiting for an interview with the asylum office (called a credible or reasonable fear interview) to determine whether they meet the basic requirements for asylum in order to be allowed to present their full asylum case to an immigration judge further down the road. At the present moment, there are only four asylum officers for the entire population resulting in a huge bottleneck for women to get passed this initial step of the process. Only after passing this interview does immigration give certain women bond amounts to pay to leave the facility and generally only after passing this interview are they allow them to proceed with their asylum cases. The bond amounts that the immigration officials were setting for these women and child were inaccessible sums that generally sentenced them to indefinite detention. As such, one of our roles as attorneys was going before the immigration court and requesting that the bonds be lowered. Another attorney with us this week likened the excessive bond amounts presented to the women as the last link the gang/coyote extortion chain that these women go through to extricate themselves from violence.
Because of the sheer number of women and children in Dilley, this pro bono project places significant emphasis on empowering the women to represent themselves during different phases of their cases while detained simply because there may not be lawyer beside them at all phases. Coming from my own practice, sending women and children’s into a lions’ den unaccompanied by legal representation seems so foreign and frightening; however, in the time it took to sit by a woman during one of her asylum interviews, an attorney could see five to ten other women. The project would orient the women to the law of asylum, individually listen to their stories and help the woman frame her story within the law, and send her to her interview alone with words of encouragement. Over the course of this week, I was reminded of the strength and courage this women possess and the power of their own words. These are valiant women.
As in Artesia, Dilley holds a significant portion of indigenous women from Guatemala with varying levels of understanding of the Spanish language. Some speak Spanish well, others can manage, and a smaller group speak virtually no Spanish. More than once a woman came to sit in front of me with an index card “I speak Q’anjob’al (or K’iche’, or Mam). I need an interpreter.” In the attorney trailer, with no cell phone access and a ban on Google voice, Skype and other internet-based calls, there were no interpreters. I can say fairly confidently that none of the CCA staff spoke Q’anjob’al, Mam, K’iche’ or other indigenous languages. Our meetings with these women would include lots of miming and drawing to reach a minimal level of understanding of their case. The obstacles these indigenous, non-Spanish speaking women face are tremendous. Presumably, some of the other women held in Dilley who also spoke their indigenous language but had more command of the Spanish language are assisting them.
The conduct of Custom and Border Protection (CBP) at the border is appalling. Most of the women and children report being placed in “hieleras” (iceboxes), which are CBP’s holding rooms, upon apprehension. Some were told that the rooms were not freezing, but rather the women and children just felt that way because they had been walking in the desert. CBP also fills out an initial screening form with the apprehended families which nearly 100% of the time states that they came to “live and work,” rather than seeking protection. CBP documents state this motive to “live and work” even for a five-year-old child. All the women deny stating this was their motive for coming. However, later in their asylum process, this CBP document is often presented by the government to impeach the women in their asylum case.
When being forced to go forward with the full merits of their asylum cases from custody, the majority of these women are winning their cases. Most of these wins have been with the assistance of dedicated pro-bono counsel from around the United States, but there have also been pro-se wins. In other words, these women and children meet the definition of a refugee as defined in the United Nations Refugee Convention and we are required to offer them protection in the United States. While we were in Dilley, one woman won her case on the same day her friend lost her case. The woman who won her case chose to stay in the Dilley facility one more night to comfort her friend.