Epiphany at Dilley: Attorney Banned from South Texas Family Detention Center

July  2015, Dilley Family Detention Center, South Texas

It was another hot and sticky day in South Texas. The agent from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) looked at attorney Andrew Free with frustration. He was fed up with the complaints from the lawyers representing the detainees.

Infant detainee identification card
Infant detainee identification card

“Look, you are getting unprecedented access here,” he told Andrew.  “More than you would ever get anywhere else.”

“That’s because you are detaining children here,” Andrew countered. “You are putting children in prison.”

Andrew—an immigration attorney and former board member of  Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors—went to Dilley as a volunteer for the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a coalition of service providers responding to the government’s expansion of family detention in both Dilley and nearby Karnes, Texas.

It was a natural fit for Andrew. Once poised to go into corporate law, he now has his own law practice in Nashville, centered solely on civil rights and immigration cases. It’s the work that makes him happiest—seeking justice for vulnerable people being abused in custodial settings.

But Dilley—a sprawling, ugly prison run by the for-profit prison company Corrections Corporation of America—is vastly different from other detention centers known to Andrew. There are 2,400 beds at Dilley; at any given time over 1,000 of these beds are occupied. They are not filled with criminals or miscreants, but by women and children whose only offense was to seek asylum in the United States. Meanwhile, the government pays upward of $300 per detainee each day at Dilley and CCA has profited greatly from its no-bid contract since Dilley opened in December of 2014.

Andrew was in an interview room with a client when a CCA security officer came in and escorted him out. He was then informed by ICE officials that his access to the detention center had been revoked. He received no explanation. He wasn’t even allowed to go back to the room to get his belongings. He was banned.

Andrew’s clients had previously requested and received an immigration bond order from an immigration judge.  The judge had rejected ICE’s requirement that these clients wear ankle monitors as a condition of their freedom. They should have been allowed to leave then. Instead, they were hauled back to the courtroom by ICE officials and told they were not going to get out on bond. They would either consent to the electronic monitor or they would have to stay inside Dilley. With their lawyer locked out of the courtroom, they had no one to turn to for advice.

Women and children fleeing violence in Central America have a much better chance of staying in the United States if they have access to expert legal counsel—provided by immigration attorneys like Andrew Free.

“So in other words,” Andrew explains, “having lost in immigration court, ICE decided to call our clients back into a courtroom without a judge, without an attorney, and manufacture a new result.”

These examples are a byproduct, says Andrew, of a “larger illegal system that says rather than welcoming rape survivors and children who have seen horrific gang violence, rather than affording them the full protection of our laws, we are instead going to lock them up for profit and prevent them from having access to lawyers and advocates.”

Being banished from the kingdom of Dilley hasn’t diminished Andrew’s commitment to the efforts of CARA and other advocacy groups working to end family detention, including National Justice for Our Neighbors, the General Board of Church and Society, and the United Methodist Women.  The volunteer attorneys at Dilley and Karnes work,  on average,  15 to 18 extremely stressful hours a day. But they are also surrounded by people of faith, people of goodwill, and people who desperately need them. It can be a transformative experience.

Meanwhile, women, children, and unaccompanied minors continue to cross the border and the CARA Project continues to need competent and hard-working immigration lawyers to advocate for them. If the system of family detention was set up to dissuade other migrants from coming to the United States, then it has failed miserably. It has failed because these women and children are fleeing for their lives.

Sub-national militias and transnational criminal organizations presently rule over large swaths of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. “The governments of these countries can’t control them,” says Andrew, “the DEA can’t control them, even the U.S. government, through money and intelligence resources, can’t control them.”

When you think about it, says Andrew, the women and children who come through Dilley and Karnes are the only people on Earth who have successfully defied the criminal gangs of the Central American Northern Triangle.

They did it, he says, by saying “no.” They said no to the lie that criminals have the right to decide the course of their lives and the manner of their deaths. They instead declared their right to exist and to live as free human beings.

That was Andrew’s moment of blinding insight—his epiphany—learned from the women and children of Dilley. His hope is that all of us can learn from their example of remarkable resilience.

“We should embrace these women with loving arms,” he says thoughtfully, “not shove them and their children behind bars.”

Attorney Andrew Free with clients
Attorney Andrew Free with clients


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