A Week in Baby Jail – Dilley, Texas
Volunteering at the Immigration Family Detention Center for Women and Children
The South Texas Family Detention Center, or “baby jail,” still houses over one thousand refugee women and children in the aloof Dilley, Texas. Corporate profits, quotas, hate, and incompetency leave these women and children stuck in detention for months in subpar conditions. In response, the CARA Pro Bono Project was formed to help these refugees out of the immigration system. The volunteers behind CARA are committed to ensuring that detained children and their mothers receive competent, pro bono representation, and developing aggressive, effective advocacy and litigation strategies to end the practice of family detention.
The Story of Mariposa – Part 5
C delved into her personal backstory….
One day, the gang member came back, and C and her husband had no more money to give. He got furious and began reiterating his threats to C’s husband. Mariposa was standing right by them, along with C. C’s voice got shaky as she got to this part of her story…
The gang member, without warning, pulled out his gun and shot C’s husband in the head twice, and C’s husband’s body fell to the ground, dead. Mariposa and C witnessed everything. She did not go into detail about how she and Mariposa reacted, but one can only imagine. To make matters even worse, the man who had just shot her husband attempted to lay his hands on C take her as “his.” C did not delve into this either, but from her uneasiness and broken eye contact, I gathered she was implying that he attempted rape.
C said that after the shooting, no one helped her. The police is corrupt and bought out by the gangs and cartels, and they turn a blind eye to crime involving those groups. Those that are not corrupt, she explained, are afraid to speak up or submit reports, as the gangs are very capable and likely to retaliate with violence. Many times, like they had done to C’s husband, they threaten the families of their victims in order to control them.
C began to be harassed by the murderer of her husband, who insisted on being with her. She turned to her family, but her family chose to not help her and turn away from the situation. Unfortunately, her family was afraid, just like the police and everyone else is. If you help someone who is having troubles with the gangs, like C was, then you become an expendable obstacle for the gangs. They kill with no mercy. C also explained that back in her home country, women do whatever the men say.
C said she had no choice but to make sure her daughter would have a future with at least one parent. She contacted her uncle in the U.S., who said he would support her, and then paid a “coyote” to help her make the journey from El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, and finally to the U.S.
She told Alex and me about her weeks’ long journey with Mariposa through Central America. She told us how difficult it was to sleep at nights, and how hunger from malnourishment struck her and Mariposa multiple times on their trip. C admitted that on a couple of occasions, she did not think she was going to make it to the U.S. alive. Her last story was about the very last leg of her trip. She and Mariposa were with about a dozen other people in a Mexican town that bordered Arizona. It was nighttime, and the coyotes’ plans had not gone according to schedule. She and the others heard the coyotes arguing amongst themselves, and one of them said that they should just “kill them all” and get out of here. C said she cried and pled to one of the coyotes to please spare their lives. The coyote she pled to then led the immigrants to a dingy raft by a river and told them to get on. He pushed them out onto the water and told them to make sure the raft sticks to the left side of the river, or they risked drowning, and that hopefully someone would find them from the U.S. side of the border.
C’s story turned bittersweet. She, Mariposa, and the other immigrants were thankfully found by U.S. immigration authorities. Gratefulness, though, turned into shock and disappointment, and later, betrayal, as the U.S. authorities stuck C and Mariposa into an overcrowded holding center on the border. The “hielera,” as the centers are known to immigrants, was freezing, and C told us that they stripped them of most of their clothing and did not give it back. The officers gave C an aluminum blanket, and forced her and Mariposa to sleep on concrete, freezing floors for a couple of nights. C and Mariposa were then sent to the baby jail that we were present at. Two months later, here we were.
C was a strong woman. When she talked to us, she usually sat up straight and gave us a poker face. By the end of her story, though, I could see sadness and disappointment behind C’s eyes. Mariposa still stared at the butterfly, now at rest on a wall. I was emotionally overloaded. I looked at Alex and I could tell that he was going through a flurry of emotions as well. C questioned the wisdom of her decision to come to the U.S. She questioned whether having Mariposa endure months of pain and solitude was worth it.
Alex and I did the only thing we could at that point. We explained that the world waiting for C and Mariposa outside of the walls of baby jail was a beautiful one. While politics, greed, and money tainted our system for refugees, we told her that there was a sea of good people waiting on the outside. There was an end in sight, and a little more patience would pay off. We introduced C and Mariposa to a couple of other CARA volunteers that would be there past our departure. Alex and I hugged C and Mariposa, and I wished more than ever that I did not have responsibilities in my own life to have to go back to.
We were told when we arrived at baby jail that the hardest part of our volunteer week would be boarding our airplane back home. Guilt of leaving behind these women and children, and not knowing what would happen to Mariposa in the next week, made what should have been a simple boarding of a Delta flight back to Sacramento an emotionally and psychologically complicated task.
The South Texas Family Detention Center is still open today and continues to house hundreds of refugee women and children. The great majority of them have a valid claim of fear of returning to their home countries, and most have family in the U.S. waiting to provide housing and food. The hieleras, baby jail, ICE, and CCA continue to unnecessarily deny these refugees respect and the freedom that they seek. Consider contacting the CARA Pro Bono Project to learn more, and lend a hand either on or off-the-ground at Dilley. Advocacy, discourse, and action can lead to shutting down family detention and this baby jail once and for all.
Links for CARA & more information: