A Week in Baby Jail – Dilley, Texas
Volunteering at the Immigration Family Detention Center for Women and Children
The Story of Mariposa – Part 3
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.
I learned that at Dilley, the game was always changing. Whether it be due to nefarious Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or unknowing immigrant families, the CARA team had to continuously adapt to changing policies, unexpected obstacles, and seemingly hopeless situations.
The days working at baby jail were long. Breakfast was between 6:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., and the days’ “big table meetings,” where the CARA team would discuss the day’s events and plan for the next, ended past 9 p.m. As the week progressed, we grew tired. But, the big table meetings and every minute spent in baby jail served as a reminder that we had it easy compared to the women and children locked up in the Dilley facility.
C’s sponsor gathered the required documents for the minimum bond, but was forced to withdraw his financial on Wednesday. I had phoned him to check on the progress of his documents, only to learn that his wife had suffered a medical emergency that left him with no means to post a $1500 bond. He let me know that he had already notified C. He had no property or other assets to acquire a loan, either. This was very common with families of Dilley detainees.
Now, we had to have a difficult conversation with C. CARA’s access within the baby jail facility was strictly limited to the visitation/attorney trailer and the court trailer. Unlike ICE and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), we had no access to the living quarters and common areas for the women and children. To see them, we had to send out for them to be called. We called in women every day for intakes, credible fear interview preps, bond preps, court hearings, and more. With over 100 women seen everyday by a dozen or so volunteers, our ability to take walk-ins was severely limited. Then, our legal services had to be efficient and quick, and we had to balance our advocacy very carefully.
With the great disparity in time that we could share with women between CARA and ICE/CCA, the latter usually capitalized on their opportunities. Between receiving the news that her sponsor was not going to be able to post bond, and seeing C the next morning, C had already been approached by an ICE agent, been offered a shackle, and accepted it.
C had her new bond hearing on Thursday morning, and although we were prepared to obtain a minimum bond, C insisted that her ICE officer had promised to release her without a financial bond (shackle). C was happy and hopeful for the first time since we had seen her. Release was imminent, and Mariposa was noticeably livelier. We turned down the bond from the Immigration Judge, telling the judge that we would be negotiating release with C’s ICE officer. The judge gave C and Mariposa the usual warnings about being careful with “notarios” and following up with political asylum hearings, and wished them luck. It turned out, they would need it.
Later that morning, that afternoon, later that afternoon, and multiple times the next day, we attempted to reach C and Mariposa’s ICE officer. Excuse after excuse from ICE, we never heard back. C also made efforts within the facility to visit her officer, who apparently was fairly accessible to the detainees, but was turned away or dismissed every time she tried. Unfortunately, similar situations were arising within the facility. Court hearings occurred every morning in three separate courtrooms starting at 8 a.m., and usually wrapped up by 1p.m. In the afternoons, ICE officers started calling in groups of women at a time to the empty courtrooms, and were telling them that they had to accept the shackles in order to be released. They mitigated the idea of the invasive shackle by pointing out that no monetary bond would have to be posted, which was definitely an advantage to some women, but there were many whose families could afford the minimum judge bonds, or even more. Furthermore, the officers were telling women to tell their families to buy their plane and bus tickets out of the San Antonio area, and to fax the proof of travel in the next couple of days to ICE so that they could be processed and released.
By Thursday morning, CARA was dealing with a multitude of confused women. As immigrants, they did not understand the system, and that they could receive bond from either ICE or the Immigration Judge. The fact that they were being called to the courtrooms by ICE was only further confusing them, thinking that they were meeting with the “court.”
The problems only grew. Women and their families were anxiously buying Greyhound tickets and faxing them to ICE as soon as possible, as instructed, only to find themselves waiting and waiting, to no results. By Friday, stories were pouring in of desperate families that had lost plane and bus tickets because ICE had not released the women when they said they would, and would give no further explanation. ICE found the time to lock the shackles onto women’s ankles, though. We even had two women in the attorney trailer that had lost two tickets already. The women were crying and felt helpless. Immigrant families were losing hundreds, even thousands, of dollars at a time. ICE did nothing to mitigate or address the situation created by themselves. They do not respect the dignity of the refugee women, children, and their families.
Amongst the despair and sadness in the trailer by the end of the week sat Mariposa. Her mother continuously checked in with us to see if her ICE officer had offered any news. The hope and smiles that braced Mariposa and her mother just 24 hours ago had been replaced once again in Mariposa by a neutral stare. In what would turn out to be our final meeting with C and Mariposa, Alex and I met in our office with them late on Friday afternoon to tell them of the unfortunate lack of news, and of our impending departure from Dilley. As we all sat down, I looked at Mariposa and saw her staring behind Alex. A butterfly was trapped in our office. It flapped and flapped by the air conditioning vent, but could not break through the wind. I watched as it landed on Alex’s shoulder as he began to explain the situation, and our meeting took an unexpected turn…
To be continued…
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