The Full-Circle Moment

JFON Dallas-Fort Worth Attorney Maria Macias provides legal aid to migrant mothers at a Texas Family Detention Center.  

I spent the week of February 28 in Dilley, Texas. Dilley is home to the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC), a privately run detention center that profits from detaining women and children. The CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project (CARA) provides free legal representation to the women and children detained at STFRC.  National Justice for Our Neighbors and JFON Dallas-Fort Worth agreed to jointly sponsor me so I could volunteer with CARA for an entire week.

It was a rewarding experience and one I’ll never forget. I left the center in awe of the women’s bravery, but also dismayed at the way these courageous women are treated when they are apprehended by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and during the time they are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

CARA volunteers must commit to at least a week of volunteer work. CARA needs volunteer attorneys because hundreds of women need help preparing for their credible fear and reasonable fear interviews. These interviews are conducted by an asylum officer at the STFRC. The asylum officer determines, based on the interview, if there is a significant possibility that the woman has a viable asylum claim. If the asylum officer believes the woman has a viable asylum claim, he or she will issue a positive finding after the interview.

If a woman receives a positive finding, she is usually released from detention and can either choose to leave with a monitoring bracelet on her ankle or by paying a bond. The ankle bracelet does not carry a cost, but the detainee must agree to mandatory check-ins at a local ICE office. ICE officers pressure women to accept the ankle bracelet instead of requesting a bond hearing. They tell the women that requesting a bond hearing will take months and that the cost of the bond is about $20,000. In reality, a detainee can request a bond hearing and it will take only two to three days to see the immigration judge. The immigration judge will issue a bond amount at the hearing. The normal range for a bond is between $1,500 to $5,000. The CARA project stresses to the women that even though ICE pressures them to take the ankle bracelet that they need to choose what is best for them. They should not opt for an ankle bracelet just because ICE tells them they should. CARA tries to educate the women so they do not fall for ICE’s intimidation tactics.

Maria and her fellow volunteer CARA bono project volunteers.

I arrived for the orientation and met six CARA staff members and three other volunteers. The staff warned us that it would be a difficult week because we had a very low number of volunteers. The week prior there had been fifteen volunteers; they were expecting twenty volunteers the following week.

Our little volunteer team accepted the challenge and we agreed to give it our all.  We arrived the next day at the STFRC. We had to go through security and we were not allowed to take in any phones. We had been previously warned that we were not allowed to take any pictures of the detention center, even if it was from across the street. The CARA staff asked us to comply because they have to deal with the repercussions if the volunteers disobey these rules.  Our access at the STFRC was limited to the immigration court and visitation trailers, where women met with CARA for legal advice.

Throughout the week we prepped many women for their credible fear and reasonable fear interviews. For many of the women, this was the first time they had ever told anyone their story.  It is very important that the volunteers build rapport and gain the women’s trust during the prep meetings so the women can tell their entire story. It is imperative that the women tell their story in a clear and organized manner during their official interview so the asylum officer is less inclined to grant them a negative finding.

It was during these preps that I learned of the way these women and their children are treated at the border.

Mother and son in a small holding cell, commonly called hieleras. Americans for Immigrant Justice.

Once women and children are apprehended by ICE, they are sent to a cold room—hielera (icebox).  They described the hielera as a freezing cell-like room with concrete walls, floor, and benches. There were no windows, the lights were on at all times, and the air conditioner was always on full blast. They said their children shivered from the cold, and when the mothers asked for food or blankets, the ICE officers told them they were criminals.

Although these women are well within their rights to seek asylum in the United States, ICE officers pressured them to abandon their claims and to sign their deportation orders.

One of the women said that her child takes prescription medication and it was taken away in the hielera. Her child was very sick and she asked an ICE officer for his medication.

“This place is not a hospital,” the officer responded.

After spending two to three days in the hielera, the women and children are transferred to a place they called the perrera (dog kennel).  They described this place as an area with mattresses on the floors and rooms separated by chain fences. They said that treatment here was better than in the hielera, but they were still constantly pressured to sign their deportation orders and they were repeatedly called criminals.

ICE officers also threatened to separate the mothers from their children.

On the grounds of the Dilley Family Detention Center. Photo credit:  The Statesman
On the grounds of the Dilley Family Detention Center. Photo credit:  The Statesman

After a few days in the perrera, the mothers and children were transferred to the Family Residential Center.  Packaged as a friendly, happy camp, the cells/barracks are called cute names like “Pink Frog,” while the other areas are called “neighborhoods.” The women and children are forced to wear uniforms that consist of pink or blue sweats. It seems as if there is an attempt to disguise the STFRC from what it really is, a place where women and children are incarcerated with assigned sleeping quarters and uniforms.

Most of the preps I did were for women who had fled their homes due to gang violence, extortion, and domestic violence. They told me that gangs had taken over their neighborhoods and they were forced to pay them or give them free services/goods just to stay alive.

Isabella, one of the women I was helping, stated that her neighborhood in El Salvador had 200 gang members, and that she was forced to give them free haircuts at her salon. She worked hard at her business and then watched helplessly as the gangs took everything away from her. Even her small attempts to try to make a nice home were forbidden.

“Who gave you permission?” a gang member shouted when he discovered her painting over some graffiti on her outside walls. “We rule here. You have to ask us for permission!”

They killed Isabella’s brother to punish her. She fled the next day.

Isabella sobbed as she told me this story. Although she hadn’t seen her parents in a year and a half, she couldn’t risk going to say good-bye to them. They live in a neighborhood occupied by another gang, Isabella explained, and anyone—everyone—from one gang territory who goes into a rival gang’s territory is interrogated and killed.

During most days, I heard stories every 30 minutes from women and in every story they described a legitimate fear of return. They were absolutely certain that if they had stayed behind, they or their children would have been killed.

Marta had received a negative finding from an asylum officer after her credible fear interview. She was an owner of a small business in Honduras and lived alone with her young daughters. The gangs arrived at her home one day to tell her that she had to pay a weekly tax. She was to pay a certain amount every week or else they would kill her and her daughters. She complied for a whole year until they told her that she would have to pay more. She pleaded with them that she could not afford the increase, but they told her that she knew the consequences if she didn’t pay. She closed her store and fled the next day. I represented her in immigration court where an immigration judge reviewed the negative finding.

“I believe that the respondent has a credible fear,” the judge ruled, overturning the asylum officer’s findings. “I would be terrified if gang members came inside of my home, while my young daughters are home, and start threatening me.”

Marta cried tears of relief during the judge’s ruling. She expressed gratitude afterwards and told me that she was happy that she would finally leave the STFRC. She was on her way to Virginia to join her husband.

The majority of the women are released from the STFRC because over 90% receive positive findings after their interviews. This release rate is thanks to CARA’s efforts to give access to legal counsel to all of the detained women. It is hard to understand why the STFRC exists if most of the women are released.  The STFRC is privately run and the cost of keeping each person is about $300 per day. It costs about $13 per day to track the women with an ankle bracelet. Senselessly detaining women and children, the majority of whom are eventually released, is costing our government millions of dollars. Detaining women and children is inhumane; although the government tries to package the center as a happy place, it is not. It is a place of desperation and a place where women lose hope.

I had a full-circle moment when I left Dilley. I was at the San Antonio airport to catch my flight back to Dallas. While I was in the security line, I saw a woman and her little girl from STFRC. I noticed that they had to go through secondary inspection so I waited for them outside of the security line. I approached her and she said she recognized me from the center. She said she needed help because she had no idea where to go. I walked them to their gate and said farewell.

Her smile was hopeful as she thanked me. She held up the little girl to say good-bye.  They were on their way to San Francisco. For now, at least, they were safe.

“All I want is to do better for my daughter,” she told me fervently. “That’s all I want.”

I thought about that all day. These women did not leave their homes with joy. It was the most difficult thing they had ever done. It meant saying goodbye to friends and family they may never see again. They left because staying meant imminent death.

I hope my experience can shed some light to those who ask why family detention should end.

National Justice for Our Neighbors was pleased to support Maria’s week at Dilley in honor of Bill Mefford, longtime board member and champion of immigration reform.


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