I had the opportunity to volunteer for a week with the CARA Pro Bono Project which provides legal assistance to women and children detained in the South Texas Family Detention Center. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) erected this facility last year in the desolate town of Dilley (population 3,674). It is managed and operated by a for-profit entity called Corrections Corporation of America. The site used to be a camp for oil field workers; now, it is a sea of trailers detaining mothers and children whom the government is trying to deport. Only inside each trailer, does its particular function become apparent - dormitory, classroom, medical facility, office, dining hall, or chapel. As volunteers, our access was limited to the legal trailer, the makeshift Asylum Office, and the Dilley Immigration Court (where judges and government lawyers appear from Miami on a large TV screen). The hostile landscape surrounding the detention center consists of dusty fields, gravel roads, and patches of prickly pear cactus patrolled by the occasional scorpion, rattlesnake, and white SUV marked “Border Patrol.”
At any given time, ICE can house up to 2,400 mothers and children in the Dilley. The majority have fled violence in Central America – gang violence, domestic violence, sometimes both - and will seek asylum in the U.S. Before arriving at Dilley, moms and their children have spent anywhere from one to several days in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after crossing the Rio Grande River or presenting themselves at an official port of entry to express a fear of returning home. I met families who had entered the U.S. within the past few days, some who had previously been detained at another ICE family detention facility in Karnes County, and some who had been languishing in Dilley for months.
In detention, most mothers will be scheduled for an interview with the Asylum Office to determine whether their fear of persecution is credible. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 87% will be found to have a credible fear. They can then ask to be released from detention to live with a family member for the duration of their removal proceedings where most will pursue asylum claims in immigration court. Some women are released after a relative pays a bond (the minimum amount is $1,500). Others agree to report regularly to the local ICE office, which often includes wearing an electronic monitoring device called a grillete (ankle shackle) that cannot be removed and must be charged for several hours a day.
During my week in Dilley, I met with over 20 different mothers to help push their cases through the system and move them closer towards eligibility for release. They had fled El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras with one or multiple children, and all shared stories of horrific violence. I conducted initial legal screenings and educated new clients about the asylum process; I prepped women for credible fear interviews and court hearings; I helped explain to their relatives in the U.S. the documents they would need to request bond.
My week in the detention center revealed countless impediments to providing representation and information to detained families. The very nature of detention practically ensures that the most vulnerable of this population will be denied a fair shot at accessing the legal protection they desperately need. The population at Dilley is in constant flux. On any given day, countless families are being deported or released while new families are arriving. Only some of the thousands of women who have been detained at Dilley are lucky enough to access the CARA Project. While word spreads quickly to some new arrivals, non-Spanish speakers, families facing health issues, and recent transfers from Karnes County Residential Center (who are quarantined for the first several weeks allegedly due to chicken pox concerns) may face heightened barriers to learning about the project. Even those actively seeking pro bono assistance must be granted permission to visit the legal trailer, and deportation officers may not facilitate access before a woman has her credible fear interview.
Even for the mothers the CARA Project helps, the challenges of ensuring due process are immense. Explaining the terms “persecution” and “particular social group” to immigrant clients is a daunting task, even in an office setting with a qualified interpreter. Imagine trying to convey such complicated legal concepts to traumatized women with limited education and language abilities, many dealing with the stress of physical or mental health issues on top of their legal cases, and all deeply concerned about their children. How do you coax a young mother you just met into recounting the most painful events of her life with her 4 year old son in her lap, repeating the words he hears – pandillas…violación (gangs… rape)? How many weeks will it take a woman to obtain a letter from her relative with the required information to support a bond request when she has no funds in her commissary account to make a call and attorneys can’t bring in cell phones?
A federal district court in California has held that U.S. family detention policies violate a 1997 legal agreement known as the Flores Settlement. Last month, the judge ordered the government to release the children detained in Dilley and other family detention centers by October 23, 2015. Preferably, the children should be released to the mothers with whom they were apprehended. While the government may appeal the decision, it appears that family detention may be on its way out. I sincerely hope that, by 2016, Dilley will revert to the dusty ghost town it once was and the CARA Project will no longer be needed. However, until then, our goal - and the be all and end all for these families - is freedom from detention.
But that is not the end. What will happen to the families after they are free? Most of the moms I met had no idea what awaited them post-release.
As a lawyer, I am especially troubled by our government’s failure to ensure the women understand their legal rights and responsibilities following their release. Interviews of released mothers indicate that many lack a basic understanding of the conditions of their release - how and when to charge the electronic ankle shackle and how to comply with obligations to report to the local ICE office in the new community. Is it fair to expect mono-lingual Spanish speakers or indigenous women who speak only Mam, K’iche’, or Q’anjob’al (including some women who are illiterate) to understand the ICE documents and court notices describing their obligations when this information is not explained in a simple manner or in their native languages? Since mid-July, CLINIC and its CARA Project partners have been consistently advocating to be able to provide short daily orientations to all women scheduled for release. So far, ICE has not provided permission for critical pre-release orientations.
Another notable hurdle is how to ensure that the families get the help they will need to navigate the immigration court system and pursue asylum. One family I helped was headed to live with a cousin in Conway, South Carolina. The nearest immigration court and non-profit legal service providers are in Charleston, over two hours away. Even for women in well-serviced areas, they must grasp the importance of filing a change of address form each time they move, appearing for all court hearings, and filing their asylum application before the one-year deadline. Failing to do any one of these things can result in deportation.
Despite the increasing violence causing people to flee Central America, the percentage of applicants granted asylum by a judge is disproportionately low. In 2012, between 6% and 7% of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran applicants won their asylum cases in contrast to 80% of applicants from Egypt, Iran, and Somalia. Legal representation has been critical to helping refugee families get out of detention in Dilley. And it will be even more critical in ensuring these families receive due process and have a chance at prevailing on their asylum claims in court. We must continue to assist these women in their fight to access justice in our country.
Want to Help?
Find out more about our CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Representation and Advocacy Project here: https://cliniclegal.org/CARA
Consider offering your time as a CARA volunteer or joining CLINIC in support of charitable legal immigration service providers nationwide.
*Jennnifer Riddle is Training and Legal Support Staff Attorney at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC)
*Pictured: Volunteers with CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Representation and Advocacy Project