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 4
Alex and I felt powerless and frustrated about not being able to wrap up C and Mariposa’s cases and being unable to secure their releases. We had probably invested the most time in the week to C’s case, yet had no final result. Alex tried a couple of more calls to ICE in front of C and Mariposa, to no avail. I believe that C understood our sadness and frustration, because at that point, she began to smile at us and tell us that she really appreciated our help and efforts. Mariposa explained that at baby jail, the detained women could trust no one. She talked about the abuse, disrespect, and deceit from CCA and ICE, and explained how the mothers had to brave through it all for their children. All the while, Mariposa stared at the flapping butterfly.
C had already been given a credible fear interview, or CFI, by an ICE officer shortly after she arrived in the U.S. The purpose of the interview is for the officer to determine if the immigrant has a legitimate fear of returning to their home country, and C had been given a positive CFI. Thus, Alex and I had a paper saying that C and Mariposa had a positive CFI, and we had no reason to ask either of them about the reasons they left El Salvador, or why they could not go back. The CARA Project’s policy was to avoid having to ask these things when there was a positive CFI because we did not want women and children to have to relive through traumas and bad memories.
Alex and I assured C that she would be in good hands after our departure. We expressed how we wished we could stay longer and not have the board our planes back to California in the next 24 hours. We really did. The problems in our lives seemed so miniscule compared to the challenges and obstacles that the women and children in Dilley. Alex and I complained about lack of sleep. Alex missed his wife and worried about his practice back home. I missed the California weather, and being around my family and friends. But the fact was that a great number of these women and children had no one. No father figure. No husband. No home. In a day or two, Alex and I would be back home, with our loved ones, solving our problems. The refugees in baby jail had no certainty about their future. They had no idea when they would leave Dilley. And if they left Dilley, would it be as a release in the U.S., or as a deportation back to their home country? Women cried when they thought about returning to their home countries, where gang violence, rape, and even death threats awaited them. They came to the U.S. looking for help, only to be received by people and agencies that dismiss their situation and treat them without dignity, and then placed them in a jail.
Alex and I thought about these things a lot by the end of the week, venting our frustrations and shock to each other whenever we had a breathing chance. We had to appear confident and strong for the women, after all, when we gave them face time (Cara, in Spanish, means face).
After C expressed her gratitude, and our calls had failed, we all sat in the office, and I imagined it was time to say our goodbyes. It was already past 4p.m. at this point, and Alex was actually flying out that same Friday evening. He had planned to leave the facility by 5p.m.
Before Alex or I could say anything, C sat up straight, looked at us, and asked us if we knew why she had come to the U.S. We told her that we did not, and we did not wish for her to have to think nor speak about those things again, especially with Mariposa right by her side. C told us that Mariposa had lived and seen everything that C had, and that it was okay.
I looked at Mariposa, and it was as though she had not even heard what her mother said. She was staring at the butterfly, now flapping again behind Alex. Mariposa was flapping her arms at the same rhythm as the butterfly. Truly heartbreaking. I remember how C had told us in one of our first meetings that Mariposa wanted to have wings so she could fly out of Dilley, just like the mariposas that flew in and out of the jail. This mariposa was trapped, though, and its only way out was if someone opened the door and released it. Mariposa, too, was trapped. This little girl just wanted to be outside of baby jail, and I could not understand why someone would not open the door for her and the hundreds of other women and children in there for an unjustifiable amount of months.
The heartbreak continued as C gave us a glimpse of what her life had been like in El Salvador. C’s husband and the father of her child, Mariposa, had lived with C and Mariposa what is considered a normal life in El Salvador. They lived in a city with government and police, but it was the gangs that truly ruled on the streets. C and her husband paid weekly extortion, or “rent,” to gang members that came around every week demanding payment in order to be able to live in their “territory.”
Earlier in the year, the violence in the city had been increasing, and the gangs’ behavior became more cruel. C told us that a particular gang member started coming by more and more often, demanding more and more money. Her husband could barely make enough for his family, and he pled with the gang member to give him more time. The gang member threatened to kill his wife and child if he did not pay. C explained how they came to live in fear every day, and how Mariposa was usually present at the exchanges with the gang members.
Alex and I were not ready for what came next…
To be continued…
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