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End Family Detention

I recently returned from Dilley, Texas where I spent a week representing the women and children detainees at the "South Texas Family Residential Center" (STFRC). I am still digesting what I witnessed and experienced while there. I cannot begin to attempt to recount the abonimable stories of violence, despair and injustice that I heard over and over again, but that horror was overshadowed by the pure strength and courage of all the women there who risked their lives to bring their families to safety. I was also humbled and inspired by the other volunteers that set aside a week of their lives to go to Dilley and contribute whatever they could to help end family detention. Without volunteers flying in from all over the country on a weekly basis, the women and children detained in Dilley, Texas would have no access to justice.  Dilley is a small town of about 4,000 people, most of whom work in one of the three prisons/detention centers located there, or in the region's oil fracking industry (of note: we were advised not to drink the water due to fracking contamination; however, that same water is provided to the detainee population). The 50-acre detention camp is located about an hour southwest of San Antonio, and apart from the (amazing) two-person permanent staff of the CARA Pro-bono Project, there are no legal services to be found in the area.

"Family Detention" is the incarceration of immigrant women and children during their immigration process. In this context, the U.S. government defines "family" as a mother/child-under-17 unit. Many of these "families" crossed the border seeking refuge with other family members such as adult children (17+), fathers/husbands, close cousins/nieces/nephews, and siblings. Under the government's family detention scheme, these families are torn apart. The policy began in 2001, but was expanded last summer after an influx of asylum seekers at the border, and largely targets women and children fleeing from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The practice can only be described as a political miscalculation by the Obama administration to appear tough on illegal immigration. Despite its extremely controversial nature, its continued existence is likely due to the power of lobbyists and the greed of investors in private prisons. Our government's family detention plan is a stain on our nation's history and I was humbled to participate in the battle against it.

In May, when I began to plan my trip, STFRC was holding approximately 600 women and children. That number has more than tripled to 2000 as of the date of this posting.  I arrived in Dilley with my two colleagues, Helen Lawrence and Juliana Batista from Oakland, California after spending the weekend in Mexico visiting migrant shelters for those recently deported from the U.S. It was a Sunday evening and we met with the 10 other volunteers who had flown in from New York, Oregon, Colorado, Georgia, Ohio, Illinois and New Mexico. Although we don't have the statistics from the other volunteers, between Helen, Juliana and myself, we met with 144 mothers over the course of 5 days. Helen and I conducted four Know Your Rights presentations and successfully represented 16 women/children in their bond redetermination hearings via Video Teleconference (VTC) before two Immigration Judges ("IJ's") in Miami, Florida (ICE has been setting bonds averaging $8000 and the IJ's reduced the bonds to an average of $2000). Helen and Juliana also represented two women in their "Credible Fear Interviews" (CFI).  The CFI is one of the first procedural steps these women must take in order to be considered for bond/release from detention, and in order to be able to eventually present an application for Asylum before an IJ.  This step is critical, but there were only four Asylum Officers on site to interview the 1800 asylum seekers that were there. As such, most of our clients are forced to wait several weeks before they even get an interview, and then another several weeks before they get a decision. If they get a positive CFI finding by the Asylum Office (currently 87% of the interviews result in a positive finding), it could then be another several weeks before they are able to have an IJ review ICE's excessive bond determination. While they wait, and wait, they and their children continue to suffer from the long-term psychological impact of detention, not to mention the trauma from their own countries that catapulted them into this situation in the first place.
In addition to the work that the three of us were able to perform, during the week we were there, the CARA Pro Bono Project represented three families who could not be released on bond, and were forced to present their applications for Asylum before the Court from within detention. Despite the many obstacles that the constraints of detention present (limited time, limited access to counsel, inability to collect supportive evidence, the restrictions of a VTC hearing, etc.), all three families WON their cases and were released to their families and/or loved ones in the U.S. as "Asylees." Statistics show that if they had not been represented by the project's committed volunteers, they would have likely been ordered deported to face continued violence, persecution, and even death in their native countries.

I waited to to write this post because I was hoping to have some good news regarding a court case that could finally put an end to the government's family detention policy. While 136 House Democrats and 33 senators have called on the government to halt family detention, a federal judge in California has issued a preliminary decision finding that the government's family detention policy violates parts of an 18-year-old court settlement that says immigrant children cannot be held in secure facilities. Unfortunately, the court-ordered negotiations in that case have been extended for a second time to July 3rd.  Today, however, Secretary Jeh Johnson made a statement regarding the government's "revised" family detention policy. We must closely monitor how these changes unfold, but this shift is most certainly a result of the tireless advocacy of all the warriors involved in the movement to #endfamilydetention.

My experience at these family detention centers has been life-altering, and I have vowed to return to Dilley if the government does not terminate its inhumane policy of detaining women and children asylum seekers from Central America. 
If you'd like to contribute to this worthy cause that still desperately needs help and volunteers, you can do so by donating and / or volunteering here!



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