How to Pack for the “Other Refugee Crisis”: My Diary from Dilley

I’m worried about you. Please be careful out there” read the text message from my BFF as I packed. For me, packing is a ritual from which I’ve never tired. Maybe it’s because I never really unpack; always ready for the next adventure. In any case, having been to over 50 countries, half in the developing world, I have an internal checklist for what to bring along. I double-checked that my vaccinations were up-to-date, that I had a full supply of my regular medications, plus Imodium and Cipro, just in case something went wrong. Insect repellent, as who knows what new malady mosquitoes would be carrying. Sunscreen, always. I threw my first-aid kit, a flashlight, and spare batteries in my bag. A 12-pack of Cliff bars and a sealed jar of crunchy peanut butter, just in case. My small coffee maker and a canister of good coffee (my “comfort food”) for when things got rough. Enough Altoids to freshen the breath of a small army. Gym shoes and my running clothes, plus nicer clothes for meetings. A scarf, because I never leave home without one. All outfits arranged in plastic bags. My computer, iPhone, chargers, books, pens, and paper. Cash, passport, other identification. I was ready.

Looking back and reflecting, I packed the exact same way for this trip as I did for past excursions to remote, forgotten areas of the world. In fact, it appears that I packed much of the same items in my carry-on bag as experienced aid workers headed to war-torn regions with no infrastructure. Except I’m not an aid worker. Nor was I headed to an undeveloped land half-way across the globe on a brink of disaster. I didn’t even need to bring my passport. I’m an immigration lawyer and was headed to southwest Texas to volunteer at a civil detention facility for refugee mothers and children.

What follows are my reflections on the week in the small town of Dilley, Texas, that I spent volunteering with the CARA Pro Bono Project. This piece is a compilation of the nightly emails from Dilley that I sent to friends and the generous folks who donated financial support for a week, edited a bit. I have kept my unedited reactions and impressions- shock, anger, shame, hope, joy- in hopes of conveying the reality of this experience.

My thanks are to Michelle, my Spanish-speaking “partner in crime” for the week, the CARA Pro Bono Project Team, who truly embody the terms “zealous advocate” and “nonstop,” and most importantly, to the women and children detained at Dilley, who honored us with their presence, allowed us to hear their stories and provide counsel and representation to the best of our ability, and reminded me of why I became a lawyer.

In the news every day, we see the stories of people fleeing war, violence, famine, persecution, and other horrors in their home countries to find safety and basic dignity in distant foreign lands. We are touched by these stories of suffering and consumed by the urge to help those experiencing this refugee crisis.

But absent from the current media are the accounts of the “other refugee crisis,” one that is happening much closer to home. Central American women and children, who are victims of domestic violence, child abuse, extreme poverty, state neglect, and terrorization by gang members in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, flee for their lives to the United States daily. Many seek reunification with loved ones, but often experience kidnapping, extortion, sexual assault, forced labor, and other forms of violence on the journey north. Current and historic U.S. policies have played a significant role in perpetuating some of the root causes of contemporary violence in Central America. Yet, rather than share in responsibility for the effects, our government has mistreated those seeking refuge. While unaccompanied children are detained and eventually released to an adult “sponsor” who can care for them during their deportation proceedings, family groups remain detained. These families, often young women and their children, are housed in remote locations in Texas and Pennsylvania, denied medical care, and left without counsel to argue their release from detention and their right to seek asylum in the United States. Despite a federal judge ordering the release of refugee mothers and children from detention, these asylum-seekers are still being detained. Immigration detention is a for-profit industry, with a daily quota mandated by Congress of over 33,000 beds at private prison corporations throughout the United States.

Since Christmas Eve, the Administration has initiated raids and round-ups of Central American immigrants throughout the United States. Women and children arrested during these raids are also put into immigration detention, and 77 have been deported back to the countries from which they fled. While the U.S. State Department has recognized El Salvador and Honduras as among the most dangerous countries in the world and has evacuated the Peace Corps from El Salvador, deportations to these countries continue. Many deportees did not receive notice of their removal hearings and many did not have counsel, as there is no appointed counsel in immigration removal proceedings . We believe that this systemic incarceration and deportation of women and children is a denial of due process rights, and is quite frankly, inhumane.

As such, Michelle and I could not remain idle. We wanted to help in our own small way and were humbled to have the opportunity to use our knowledge and skills to serve refugee women and children feeling violence in Central America. We were honored to join attorneys, law students, social workers, interpreters, and other interested persons who volunteer to make a difference in the lives of refugee women and children through the CARA Pro Bono Project , an amazing volunteer-based organization created in the summer of 2014 by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. In order to best manage the high caseload, CARA has established a system in which volunteer teams each commit one week of intensive work. With the understanding that this week would not be easy, we signed up for the challenge.

Dilley, Day 1: Living, eating, and working in a trailer park

After a day of travel on Sunday (NYC to Houston to San Antonio) we finally arrived in Dilley, Texas (80 miles southwest of San Antonio) at 5 PM on the dot. We went to our straight to our orientation with the amazing folks who run the CARA Pro Bono Project, the organization through which we are volunteering, at the ranch house they use as a headquarters in town. At orientation, we had a delicious home-cooked meal and met our fellow volunteer family. Our orientation lasted until about 9 PM. We stopped by the grocery store to get some provisions, including peanut butter (TSA agents confiscated mine from me at LaGuardia because it was a “liquid”), and then we went to our hotel (more on that below) and headed straight to bed.

At 7:30 AM Monday morning, we arrived at the South Texas Family Residential Center. It’s on an unmarked road off of the main road in town. We arrived at the same time as the men and women who work in the facility, who are identifiable by the matching clear plastic backpacks for their belongings. We all go through security (in a trailer) and then enter the visitation room (another trailer). The people who work in the facility are smiley and friendly towards volunteers in both trailers. At present, there are more staff members running this facility than there are detainees. Welcome to the immigration version of the prison industrial complex, a politically connected for-profit system of arbitrary detention for family groups of women and children.

The visitation trailer has big open space in middle with chairs and tables. There is a kids play room in the back with a TV. There are four bathrooms and sinks, and tables around the sides where we are sitting. There are some outlets for our computers and we are able to use internet hotspots for CARA’s data entry program (please note that the passwords for their internet hotspots, which are written on a whiteboard, are “end family detention” and “no more deportations” in Spanish.)

Groups of women and some children arrived around 8 AM for CARA’s “welcome charla.” This is essentially a group Legal Orientation Program, but due to restrictions on service providers needing to have contracts to perform such orientation sessions, CARA has to call it something else. So, the word of choice is “charla,” or chat.

It was a rainy day and on the cooler side, meaning baby pink ski hats for everyone. There is a daycare as well as a “school” for the children in the detention facility in a different trailer.

Michelle and I met with women in depth today to do intakes and prepare them for their credible or reasonable fear interviews with Asylum Officers, which will occur later this week. We were instantly struck by the dignity and grace of the women we met, who survived horrific situations of violence in their countries of origin and experienced another level of mistreatment upon arrival to the United States. The women and children (as well the unaccompanied children we work with at Safe Passage Project) are then put in the hieleras (“ice boxes”), or rooms with too much air conditioning that are painfully cold. The women reported to us that U.S. border officers taunted them with blankets (by waving blankets at them and then throwing them on the floor, out of reach), did not provide food to their children, and there was barely enough space to sit, let alone to lie down. It was shocking. The first women we met with told us that the Border Protection officers yelled at her and her 4-year-old son and told them to return to Central America because “you’re not welcome here. Go back to where you came from.”

And so we pressed pause on our intake and welcomed her to the United States. And she cried.

Our day concluded at 9 PM with a round table discussion with all staff and volunteers about issues that arose today, advocacy efforts, etc. The main advocacy effort at present centers on the fact that the state of Texas will soon be applying for a license to make the facility a licensed daycare provider, meaning that they will be able to hold women and children in detention longer.

The Eagle Inn: Turns out that our hotel is actually a series of trailers converted into rooms. So, it’s a trailer park. It’s quite nice, and we have kitchenettes. Our original room was supposed to be a suite with a full kitchen, but the people who had been renting it for weeks and weeks had dogs that “soiled” the place. So, we have two rooms, and lots of space, for the price of one.

Eagle Inn, Dilley

As such, our whole life is going from one trailer to another. So, we never have actual walls…

[N.B. After this email, I received more concerned texts and emails from my friends, some of whom actually are humanitarian aid workers, about my time in Texas, than I ever did from my travels to anywhere else on six continents]

Dilley, Day 2: “The Little Mermaid” on Repeat. All.Day.Long.

Woke up in the trailer in the middle of the night to an enormous thunderstorm, huge hail beating against the roof, and a text from Michelle reading “this storm is crazy.” Apparently, no one slept as the storm was quite loud and scary. Weather report shows no more inclement weather for the remainder of our stay in Texas, which is important when you’re spending all of your time in a trailer without proper walls…

Arrived at the South Texas Family Residential Center (“Baby Jail”) at 7:30 AM to a parking lot full of giant puddles and water everywhere. Cold today (in morning and night) so the visitation trailer is a sea of women in different color sweatshirts (lime green, fuchsia, pale yellow). Like yesterday, “The Little Mermaid” was on loud, proud, and on repeat in the kids play area in the visitation trailer. [I know you’re singing the songs in your head now; well, so am I.]

We began our intakes after the “Welcome charla” (orientation) at about 8:30 AM. The CARA Team is incredible at these “charlas” and allowing women to understand CARA’s role, how the detention process works, and also their rights throughout the process. No one in the detention facility explains anything to the women or children except for CARA. Knowledge truly is power, and the women we worked with repeatedly told us how much it helped to understand what was going on, the steps that they would undergo to be released from detention, and their rights along the way.

During intakes, our task is to obtain basic biographical information about the women and their children with them in detention, sign release and retainer agreements for CARA, and talk about experiences in detention after crossing the border. Because we have some time and the women are being scheduled for their credible or reasonable fear interviews (CFIs or RFIs), Michelle and I do a prep session for these interviews during intake. These CFI (majority are CFI) and RFI interviews are in the detention center before Asylum Officers, during which the women are questioned on their fear of returning to their home countries and they need to show that they could have an asylum claim. They are not required to prove their entire asylum claim (this will come later, after release, in front of an immigration judge and hopefully with a lawyer representing them), but they have to show that there is a significant possibility that they could establish eligibility for asylum, withholding of removal, or protection under the UN Convention Against Torture. We spend a lot of time with women, especially during the “CFI Prep” sessions, to prepare.

The stories we have been hearing are intense. The women have seen hell. The majority of the women we spoke with in the past two days have experienced horrific domestic violence at the hands of their husbands/intimate partners and escaped to the United States because their countries (El Salvador and Honduras) are unable to protect them. Domestic violence is a “family problem,” women have a very low place in society, and husbands/intimate partners are connected to the gangs or are police officers themselves.

Further, almost all the women reported terrible treatment by U.S. border protection officers on their way to detention; others (one in particular today) explained to us that she was actually treated really well, which made her incredibly sad and upset because she realized how her own country of Honduras and her own countrymen could not/would not protect her from her husband.

Our afternoon was spent prepping a woman who had not passed her CFI who will be going before an Immigration Judge tomorrow for review of this negative decision. This will be rough. Her case is not clear; she is very timid and soft spoken. We’ll see her bright and early tomorrow morning to re-explain and re-prep and then will be with her before the Immigration Judge for her hearing. Note that the judges are in Miami and appear by video conference. Tomorrow’s hearing should be an experience. Fingers crossed.

Life in the Facility:
We brought our lunches today to the detention facility in our matching purple plastic Tupperware complete with plastic fork and knife (remember, no metal!) Our volunteer colleagues were rather jealous because our lunch was great, thanks to Michelle’s cooking skills and the fact that we actually have a kitchenette. We are incredibly grateful for our kitchenette (or -ettes rather, as we have two rooms) and the ability to make coffee (I brought both coffee and my little Bialetti coffee maker with me). Makes mornings a hell of a lot better.

This evening, we took a road trip to Pearsall, the metropolis about 15 miles away, to buy food and supplies. We went to HEB (Texas grocery store chain), which was not too bad. Ran into a security guard from the facility at HEB. It’s a small world after all. And then went into the town of Pearsall (not much there) and to Walmart for a few necessities, where my purchase of a sweatshirt set off multiple fraud alerts on my credit card.

We cooked (meaning Michelle cooked) a delicious dinner (I washed the dishes) and as we’re not spending a lot on food, we bought (drumroll) a bottle of wine at HEB. We had 4 bottles to choose from, including “Beach House Wine” and a nice Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, which turned out to not be too nice at all (tolerable). Michelle was very excited about the carrot juice she bought; turns out it expired in April, 2015. (We were then in February, 2016!) We tried.

Dilley, Day 3: Contraband and Court Appearances

Today, we smuggled a metal fork into the detention facility, Orange-is-the-New-Black style.
 [Kidding kidding it was an accident, and we didn’t get in trouble, only an eye roll, but I figured this would get your attention and bring some humor to what was a rough day for us.]

We started at 6 AM with delicious coffee, made with non-polluted bottled water, and then the day got really rough rather fast. Non-stop!

By 7:40 AM, Michelle and I had re-prepped our client for court and then went with her. Or, at least we tried to. Detainees leave through one door of the visitation trailer, and we leave through another door. I worried about getting lost, and then realized that the Immigration Court is actually the next trailer over. Here, remember, everything is a trailer. The Immigration Court is a trailer. The credible fear interviews are in another trailer (it says “Asylum/Asilo”) in huge letters. Day care is another trailer. There are no real walls. There are very few windows. We can’t go anywhere without an escort…a CCA employee to walk us from trailer to trailer. We were able to sit in the courtroom and get a sense of the judge. One of our volunteer colleagues, Nancy, was doing a couple of bond hearings. In short, after women pass their credible fear interviews, they are able to leave Dilley with an “ankle monitor.” (this is a shackle worn on the ankle that is very big, has to be plugged in and comes with other restrictions). One of the CARA attorneys gives a “release charla,” which Michelle sat in on, in which she explains to women their rights in terms of being released on an ankle monitor or through a bond. It’s important to note that the women have the right to a bond hearing, before an Immigration Judge, to determine the amount of the bond. [No one will be released on her own recognizance, unfortunately.] The lowest bond amount at present is $1,500 and highest I saw today was $5,000. Some of the women choose to fight the ankle shackle and try for a bond, and CARA helps them, with a team at Yale Law School, to prepare bond determination packets. The judge had an atlas of Texas (he called it his “Rand McNally”) which he would refer to each time to get a sense of the geography of Texas; remember judge is on a video screen.

Then came a private attorney, who drove in from San Antonio (80 miles) to represent a woman in detention. She turned to me to ask me what she was supposed to do (like I know??), and asked for a continuance to get her paperwork together [meaning her client remains in detention because she wasn’t prepared on time. I understand the challenge of representing a detained person, but it helps to do one’s homework]

Then came our case. Present in the courtroom were the client, moi, Michelle, and the security guard. Everyone else is in Miami and we see them on a video screen. Client is very timid, but spoke loud enough to be heard (proud of her). However, the law is not on her side given the facts presented. The judge reminded me that this wasn’t a merits hearing and that in his courtroom (or trailer), he conducts these review hearings without much attorney interaction at all.

At one point, client said she was very nervous. The judge replied that he has a dental appointment in the afternoon, so no one was more nervous than him. [While this comment may have been intended to convey empathy, it had a much difference effect when transmitted to our courtroom trailer].

He asked the client a bunch of questions, but the reality is that due to various factors (lack of education, class, gender, poverty, being in detention, etc.) our client was not able to communicate well. And again, the law was sadly not on her side. The judge affirmed the Asylum Officer’s decision for the credible fear interview (which was denied), meaning that our client, and therefore her three children, took a deportation order, and promptly broke down and burst into tears.

The guard was very sympathetic and immediately helped us to make sure she got to the visitation trailer so that we could speak with her. Because we have to use different doors, we actually couldn’t walk with her to the trailer (it’s like 10 feet away). [How is this ok? We can’t walk 10 feet with a sobbing woman why exactly??] We then returned to the visitation trailer to speak with her and make a plan.

Afternoon- Credible Fear Interviews Non-stop!
Michelle and I then shoved food in our faces (with the help of a plastic fork we acquired), got ourselves together, and headed off to the Asylum Trailer to represent women at their credible fear interviews. [Note that it’s actually called the “Asylum Court.” Interesting] Michelle’s client suffered horrific domestic violence at the hands of her partner; mine was in such grave danger due to her job as an attorney in her country that she went to the U.S. Embassy, where they advised her to go the United States and request asylum as soon as she stepped foot on soil. Client was much more sophisticated than the Asylum Officer, which added some spark to the long ordeal. My client’s interview took 3 ½ hours and was essentially the same thing as an asylum interview (which irritates me for many reasons). Both clients will have decisions in a few days (hopefully by Friday).

Turns out my client’s interview took the longest, and I exited at the same time as a group of Asylum Officers on a tour before they took their detail in Dilley. The guard told me to go with them, so I did. They asked me where I was on detail from, and I explained that I was volunteering, and they quickly figured out that I was not part of the tour (everyone said “it must have been the scarf”). Apparently, they’re new members of the asylum corps from different offices on detail for 2 weeks to a month (but often extended) at Dilley. Non-stop!

The guard escorted me to the visitation trailer, where Michelle and I met with our client from the morning to call her in-laws back in her home country to see if there were continuing threats, etc. Though there is no formal appeal of the judge’s decision, our strategy is to request a review to re-interview the client to see if there’s anything we hadn’t yet touched on. [It turns out that there was a significant trauma history, compounded by her stay in detention, which made it difficult for her to articulate to us her story.]

Returning to our trailer park, my goal for the evening was to run, but sadly, the treadmill was not functioning. Instead, I ran laps around the facility, which felt great. Our dinner was delicious, thanks to Michelle, and we have leftovers for lunch. The wine (same bottle) tasted a bit better tonight. While I am typing this, Michelle is doing country conditions research for our client tomorrow…

Thanks again for your supportive emails and texts; they are truly appreciated.

P.S. Carlin, thanks for your lovely offer to FedEx wine…it would be much appreciated, but sadly won’t reach our trailer before we leave. This week is flying by.

Dilley, Day 4: New Rules and the Prison Bus

Please note that Thursday’s NY Times has an Op-Ed on the multi-million dollar industry of for-profit detention, locally known as The South Texas Family Residential Center (“Baby Jail”) where we are volunteering. It discusses the corruption and scandals of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the company which runs the detention facility.

This morning, we stopped at the store (gas station) to buy some necessities for our day, and took some photos for you.

Gas Station, Dilley

Also saw this interesting bus- like a greyhound bus, but when we looked inside, it was actually a prison bus with mesh and a door separating driver from passengers, etc. We arrived at the detention facility a bit later than usual and had to park way out. The amount of cars in the parking lot is unbelievable. There are at least a thousand people who work here, and at least 700 are CCA employees. Uniforms are maroon top, khaki pants. Women wear maroon bows in their hair (it’s Texas).

There are interesting new rules at security every day. Today, we were told that our lunch bags (Walmart grey plastic bags) were not “clear enough” to see through. So, we got to put our lunch in clear garbage bags.

To comply with the “no metal” policy (which doesn’t quite make sense because computers, watches, jewelry, and other metal items are allowed), I took my Altoids out of their tin and put them in a plastic bag, which makes them look like some kind of illicit drug. So far, they have not been confiscated.

Did CFI and RFI preps in the morning. Went for a walk around the parking lot this afternoon to get some fresh air. There are so many people who work here, and so many cars, that it is incredible. It’s very clear what a significant employer this facility is for the town and for the region. Cars have bumper stickers ranging from the usual “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus Saves” to items involving guns, hunting, and shooting stuff. Remember, this is Texas. We also saw the prison bus parked on the side of the facility.

The never-ending search for coffee 
 A coffee truck would make a killing here for the about a thousand workers (and volunteers!) who come through the facility each day. Michelle reminded me that no one here was going to pay $3 for a cup of coffee (at this point in the day, we decided we would pay just about anything for an afternoon cup of coffee). Interestingly, despite the entirely profit-driven motive of this center, no one has come up with this idea. We thought about driving to the gas station for a coffee, but I was reminded that when you make coffee, you need to use bottled water (I do this in the morning). I’m used to traveling in developing countries and being thrilled about coffee because the water was boiled, and thus safe to drink. Boiling kills the bacteria. However, when the water is polluted by fracking, as it is in Dilley, boiling it doesn’t get out the chemicals. Learning so much about this environmental catastrophe.

Back to the detention facility: 
 The majority of the women we meet come “por el río” (through the river) or “por el puente” (by the bridge). Those who come through the river are usually on the Texas border and are brought with their children to this facility (after spending days with border patrol, which can be horrific). This week, we saw at least five women who came “by the bridge” at Tijuana, Nogales, or Ciudad Juarez and were flown to San Antonio, and then bused to Dilley.

Michelle and I did an intake with a woman who came to the United States “by the bridge” just this week with her young son. She was fleeing violence and seeking to reunite with her husband in one of the Carolinas. Her Spanish is perfect. The conditions in which she and her son were kept were freezing cold and they were only given soup to eat for days- the child cried constantly. She kept asking if they were going to the state her husband lived in, and immigration officers told her yes. She ended up in San Antonio, and then was bused to Dilley. She told us that she thought that she had been kidnapped. She kept asking where she was, and no one would tell her.

Arrested when picking up a “UAC”?
 Assisted the CARA attorneys with a complicated case of a Mexican woman with a prior deportation order who years later obtained a visa to come to the United States. Her boyfriend (whom she will be marrying upon release from detention) is a United States citizen. She and her son went with him to pick up his daughter (who entered as an unaccompanied child, or “UAC”) from ORR custody (child detention for kids who come to the United States unaccompanied) and ICE arrested her and her son; they’re now in Dilley. [Insert many exclamation points here as we have been told that this doesn’t happen- surprise!]

Photos I am attaching a photo of Dilley. In short, the highway (I-35) is in the middle. We live on the side with two gas stations, a hunting supply store, the actual prison, some houses, and the detention facility. The other side of the highway has the grocery store (which has a hunting supply aisle), more gas stations, and a taco stand. There’s also a Burger King, and a few hotels (Days Inn and a new one they just built) are up the road. Apparently there’s a “downtown” somewhere, but there are only a few buildings there.

Big Table Meeting Tonight we had our last “big table” meeting to discuss our week, ending family detention, etc. Hanging out with a group of dedicated advocates is truly heartwarming. Our team this week is composed of attorneys, a BIA accredited representative, a sociology professor, a writer/journalist, a few paralegals, a PhD student (Michelle!), and two college students. We discussed how we are maintaining our humanity as well as a sense of outrage (that is building by the minute) as we bear witness. The women in this facility are among the bravest we’ve ever met, and they honor us with their presence.

We further discussed advocacy ideas. Tax dollars should not be spent incarcerating babies. Period.

Dilley, Day 5: New Rules at The United States of CCA

Friday was our last day at Baby Jail. By the time we arrived (bright and early), the parking lot was almost full, so we ended up parking out by the flags. We learned that there is actually a CCA flag, flying proudly on the pole underneath the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) flag, of which ICE and USCIS are parts. Welcome to this new nation-state of CCA.

CCA had new rules at the security trailer today- no mirrors! Mirrors are contraband. The guard had a big problem with my mirror. A mild argument ensued, mostly after the guard told me that my lipstick should not be taken in either. Compromise was that the mirror was kept for me at the front desk with a post-it with my name on it, and lipstick stayed with me. Please note that this would have been the 5th day that I carried the mirror into the vicinity.

While waiting for me to sort out my mini mirror business. Michelle overheard one CCA officer talking to another: “The way these people get caught is like f-ed up. I know like some of them are smuggling drugs and stuff, but I mean their stories are like wow, totally f-ed up.”

Michelle and I finished an intake from the previous day and also worked on a lot of CFI preps during the morning. We spent a lot of time with the woman from the previous day who had a horrific episode with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (thought she was being kidnapped). Helped her to prepare for her interview the best we could.

I went with a woman whom we had been working with since Monday afternoon to her Reasonable Fear Interview. Remember, you can’t walk with your client to the interview. We have to be escorted. I was walking with a CCA guard, when he pointed at the bus we had seen all over town (meaning at the gas station) all week, and he said people are leaving. Me: “oh is that the bus that takes them to the airport?” Him: “Yeah sometimes, or sometimes it goes to Guatemala.”

At the interview, quite frankly, the Asylum Officer had no idea what he was doing. He had what appeared to be notes or a checklist in his lap, which he kept consulting. (yes, really). At the beginning, he asked her questions about her mom (who passed away) during biographical info, and she burst into tears and started sobbing. The Asylum Officer looked horrified at the sight of a woman crying, and I instructed him to please go get some tissues from some other trailer, which he did.

Despite the Asylum Officer needing some training, the interview went reasonably well and client did an awesome job of nailing the essential points of her story. I am very very proud of her. We met back at the visitation trailer (have to use our separate doors to exit/enter) and discussed.

We packed up and left the facility pretty late, stopped by the trailer park to pack up our stuff, and then met the group for dinner at the one restaurant in town, Millie’s.

First, we stopped by the grocery store (Lowe’s) for wine, and headed to meet the group at Millie’s restaurant (Tex Mex), where we quickly realized that we didn’t have a corkscrew. The waitress told us that “the girl who works the morning shift has one, but she’s not here now.” (?) Luckily, one of the Colorado folks had one at the hotel, and went back to get it. World saved.

We talked about Dilley- jobs in Dilley are with CCA at Baby Jail, and at another immigration detention facility (for adults, but not family units) in Pearsall, the metropolis about 15 miles away from Dilley (Pearsall is the closest actual town to Dilley). That detention facility is run by GEO Group, CCA’s competitor. There is also a state prison in Dilley, actually next to the Baby Jail. And those are the employers.

Saturday (Bonus!)

We got up at 5 AM to leave by 5:45 AM to drive to San Antonio (80 miles) to gas up and drop off our rental car, and then head to the airport. The airport is small, the plane was small- quite frankly, these were the only small things I saw in Texas. But the best part about the San Antonio Airport is the TSA Fembot (projected image of woman that talks and moves on a cardboard cutout). There are no words.

As we were leaving the plane and walking through the airport, we both remarked that it really felt like we had been far far away to some distant foreign land and were returning from a very long trip. In reality, we never crossed an international border and were gone for only a week. Amazing to be back in the land of kale, fish, good coffee, actual walls (no more trailers) and working treadmills.

Dilley, Continuing Reflections

What is sticking with me as I tell friends, colleagues, and students who inquire about our time in Texas is that I saw so clearly that rights don’t matter if you can’t access them. Lenni taught me immigration law and I learned how our asylum system works from Human Rights First. I learned that being granted asylum sadly depends just as much on your Immigration Court and your Immigration Judge (i.e., “Refugee Roulette”) as it does on the merits of your case. But what I learned in Dilley is that all of these legal paradigms I had been taught, including the right to seek asylum, are a farce if you can’t access the border in the first place.

Even the shyest woman we met last week had done the unimaginable. She had made it to the U.S./Mexico border, past an armed man from Customs and Border Protection “protecting” our southern border from hungry, tired, frightened women and children (literally the tired, poor, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.) She walked up to him, as he shouted obscenities at her and told her to “go back to where she came from.” When she told him she was afraid, he locked her and her children in cages or “iceboxes” or both.

We heard the stories from the women of their sisters/friends/cousins who didn’t make it past this man, even though they were afraid and requested protection. He didn’t listen to them or chose not to hear. They were turned away from the right to seek asylum, as covered by both domestic and international law, because an armed man at the border-not a judge- decided arbitrarily that these women did not have this right. Refugees, apparently, are not welcome here. Rights don’t matter if you can’t access them.

The fight continues. There is much work to do.


A note about me: I am a public interest attorney working for the Safe Passage Project in NYC. In the past two years, my boss and I have trained over 4,000 attorneys, law students, immigration officials, judges, academics, and social service professionals on representing children in immigration proceedings, including before the Immigration Court, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and family courts. I co-teach a year-long immigration law clinical course focusing on family law and immigration remedies for unaccompanied children facing removal from the United States, as well as an introductory immigration law course and an advanced immigration law seminar. Previously, I worked for African Services Committee, a non-profit in Harlem, representing survivors of gender-based violence, many of whom were living with HIV/AIDS, in mainly immigration, family law, public benefits, and advanced directives cases. Therefore, I had a background on the substantive areas of law, as well as practical issues of working with interpreters, survivors of trauma, and in a fast-paced, low-budget setting before volunteering in Dilley. Yet, I still learned a great deal and am most grateful to have had the opportunity to bear witness and be outraged.