The Hunger Games:

A World of Hurt in the Ice Box and the Dog Cage

By Pamela Woldow and Douglas Richardson

We are lawyers who recently spent a volunteer week at the Southern Texas Residential Center at Dilley, Texas, a week about which we will post of series of reflections we call the Dilley Diaries.

How Bad Can This Be?

Although spartan, the Southern Texas Family Residential Center — Dilley — is clean, well-lit, air-conditioned, and generally well-maintained. The things that happen here are orderly and organized; Dilley is a machine, a way station in the process through which refugee women and their children, most from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, begin to wend their way through the lengthy asylum process.

By and large, Dilley’s staff behaves professionally. Dressed in maroon polo shirts and khakis, they are aloof, but not vicious or contemptuous. Given Dilley’s mission in the whole immigration/asylum scenario, Dilley’s activities of daily living and administrative processing do not spark outrage.

But outrageous things have happened before these women and their terrified children got to Dilley.

What We Do, What We See

Our main task this week is to help female refugees prepare for their first step in their quest for asylum, the so-called Credible Fear Interview, or CFI.

If a refugee earns a positivo on her Credible Fear Interview (CFI) at Dilley — if she is found to have a credible and specific fear of persecution if returned to her native country — she (and her kids, if any) are moved out of Dilley toward a modicum of freedom in the US (albeit with an ankle bracelet or a hefty bond to insure they attend subsequent proceedings in Immigration Court) to await further proceedings. Sounds promising, right?

Horrors Revealed

But Dilley is only the second step in a refugee’s journey. Detention at Dilley follows the horrific days apprehended refugees first spend in the hands of the Customs and Border Protection gestapo, our own CBP.

We learned about those days during a CFI prep session. When we meet and get introduced to Graciela, 4, and her mother Maria (not their real names), they are noticeably and notably tense. Although now dressed in clean, colorful government-issue tee shirts (standard at Dilley), both are taut and wary, both eager for help and cautious about accepting it. Graciela is trembling during our prep session, clinging to her mother in a way that suggests the need for both warmth and security.

“She’s a little sick,” says Maria.

Welcome to the Ice Box

“It’s from when we were taken at the border by CBP to a holding facility. First, all your own possessions are taken away. Then you are told to take a shower. It’s a cold shower. Then we were taken to a cement room with no windows. The room was ice cold. It was freezing. It was very freezing. Mucho frio.

“Everybody calls it the ice box. There were no beds . We just got a little piece of nylon to try to cover ourselves. We all trembled, and my daughter’s lips were blue the whole time. No one slept anyway, but to make sure no one got any rest, the lady guard would come in twice a night and make us get up in a line. If anyone was slow, she would kick them in the calves and ankles with big sharp boots. All our eyes were red from no sleep. We all just huddled together to try to stay a little warm.

Chow Time

“We got a little food twice a day,” Maria continued. “They only gave us two things. One was ramen noodles. The other was frozen ham sandwiches. They had a piece of spam and a little bit of wilted lettuce in between a couple of pieces of white bread. They were frozen solid. You could not eat them until they thawed out a little bit.

“The guards kept pressuring us to say yes to immediate deportation. Graciela and I were there two days, and because we said no to deportation, we were taken to the Dog Cage.”

Going to the Dogs

Maria goes on to describe how she and her daughter were moved to a chain link cage located inside another building. About thirty other women and children were in the small area. “Everyone was lying down,” Maria says softly. “This place smelled bad, very bad.”

The guard ordered everyone to lie down and stay down. The mothers and all the children, too. No matter what their age, if a child sat up or stood up, or if they wiggled or if they cried, the guard yelled at them to lie back down and be still.

The prisoners of the dog cage only were allowed to sit up for a half hour, twice a day. They had to lie down flat for 23 hours per day, with two 30-minute breaks for eating and using the bathroom. The rest of the time, they had to remain lying down, all pressed together like sardines in a can. “Many women and children could not hold their bladder that long and wet themselves. How can you tell a little child not to pee for twelve hours? The urine ran across the floor among us. We were cold, wet and ashamed.”

“A female guard walked by with an armful of shiny blankets. ‘These were supposedly meant for you,’ she told us, ‘but I’m not going to give them to you. You should go back to your own country. You don’t deserve to be warm.’”

Still Chow Time

Although the scenery had changed, the diet had not: ramen noodles and frozen ham sandwiches.

Many mothers tried to break off pieces of food and secret them in their clothing, hoping to be able to give their children a small snack during the long stretches between” meals.” It didn’t work: the women were frequently frisked, and when contraband was detected, it was put on a table just outside the Dog Cage, a temptation in plain sight but always out of reach. The food on the table was a tease to remind the women that they have no rights and are completely under the guards’ control.

Mothers with howling infants would call out for milk, which was supplied — usually between one and two hours later. During that time, the babies would continue to cry, continue to protest as only babies can. Mothers who tried to discreetly breast feed their tiny infants while standing in line were told to stop and cover their breasts.

The Land Without Time

Everyone we talked to about the Dog Cage said the same thing: there were no windows, and the lights remain on 24 hours a day. When a woman asks what time it was, she is told, “There is no time in here. You can keep asking but no one will tell you.” One woman figured out that the bathroom cleaning crew arrived each morning, so she counted the number of times that they had come during her stay. She and her daughter were in the Dog Cage for four bathroom cleaning cycles.

A World of Animals

At the Dog Cage, verbal insults run thick and dirty from the CBP guards. “You are pigs!” they often shout. “You are filthy pigs! You do not deserve to be here! Go home! Go home to the filthy little countries you came from!” One refugee tells of how one particularly sadistic female guard loved to bait them. “Why don’t you come outside to eat?” she would say. When a woman had been removed from the Dog Cage, the guard would dump her food in the dust. “There! Eat off the ground! That’s what animals do.”

As our week at Dilley wore on and we inspired greater trust, woman after woman told us, “We don’t even treat our animals the way the guards treated us.”

Yes, It’s SOP

These stories do not depict isolated events or individual guards who are particularly vicious outliers. They depict SOP — standard operating procedure — for what is supposed to be the greatest and most generous country on earth. They paint a picture of daily life at the border, a template for humiliation at the start of a long, humiliating immigration process.

Catch 22: Even If You Win, You Lose

We volunteers did get some good news at Dilley. As we noted earlier, once refugees have been carefully prepared for their CFI hearings, over 95% now are receiving positive results — meaning their fears of future persecution if they returned home were deemed credible enough to let them pass into the US and continue on with the lengthy asylum process. The next step was a series of hearings before Immigration Judges in the US.

How many asylum applicants prevail at this level? At the moment, the DENIAL rates for refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are all above 75%. And they’re about to get worse.

Mr. Sessions, the US Attorney General, is very upset that the positive rate is so high. He has been taking away cases from immigration judges with a reputation for being too sympathetic and assigning them to sterner judges. He also is trying to change the definition of persecution so that fewer refugees will qualify for asylum.

These tales reflect both a pointless immigration policy and a monstrous political attitude. Here at Dilley, we listen to scores of stories like this and hang our heads in shame. Here America’s promise to stand tall in the world as the Home of the Brave and Land of the Free rings hollow and shallow. Here, our nation’s feet are shown to be made of clay as dark and as dry as the dust in some distant arroyo in Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. Earlier in our week at Dilley, when we first hear the horror stories and see the fear and pain in the eyes of hollow-eyed children, we struggled to keep the tears from welling up in our eyes in front of our clients. I mean, we’re lawyers, after all. Seasoned professionals.

After a week at Dilley, we don’t even try anymore. We let the tears come.

And so, our final message to you from Dilley: Please, please help.

NB: The photos were not taken by the authors. Certain photos depict actual facilities and refugees.