A Week in Baby Jail – Dilley, TX
Volunteering at the Immigration Family Detention Center for Women and Children
The Story of Mariposa
My name is Brian Pando. I am a law student, as well as a legal assistant here at Kobayashi Law. The week of July 19 – 25, 2015, I had the privilege of volunteering as part of the CARA Pro Bono Project at the South Texas Family Detention Center (STFDC) in Dilley, Texas. 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 Obama Administration opened the STFDC facility in December 2015 as part of their response to the arrival of over 65,000 women and children in 2014 from Central America – particularly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, fleeing their homes because of extreme gang violence, and essentially, war.
The prison, deceivingly mislabeled as a “family detention center,” is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a for-profit private corporation that holds a contract with Department of Homeland Security, ICE to fill the beds in the facility. STFDC has 2,400 beds and was created to “detain and expedite the removal of adults with children” who arrived at the Southwest border.
I met our group of volunteers from around the country on Sunday night at an aloof Dilley Ranch, before kicking off the week. Together with CARA staff, we numbered about 15 – 20 volunteers total, and it was inspiring to see attorneys, paralegals, teachers, psychologists, and others unite for this cause and truly care about the well-being and rights of these women and children.
That night, we were warned about the horrible stories we would be hearing, about the poor health we would be seeing, and the maddening treatment that these women and children were receiving from ICE and CCA. We were told that, recently, 250 children were given adult-dosage vaccines that caused some to get gravely sick. We were told that on-site medical staff used “drink more water” as a cure-all for everything. We were told that some of these women were here for 6 months. We were told that we would have to balance our legal services with advocacy.
The full emotional, psychological, and physical gravity of the situation would not really hit me that next Monday morning, but I met Mariposa that day. I was more concerned with acquiring bond documents, learning how to use the online database, preparing for court, learning everyone’s names, and generally understanding the full scope of the legal services we had to provide to these hundreds of women. I even took a normal lunch this day; an hour spent at Subway with my partnered attorney, asking him questions to learn how to better do my job.
In between it all, I met a woman and her daughter, Mariposa. I will call the mother, “C” for the purpose of my story. C was one of the mothers whom we represented in court for a bond hearing that Monday morning, and as such, our first time meeting her was in the courtroom at 8a.m. in front of a televised judge. C told us that her family could only afford to pay a minimum bond ($1500), and that she did not want to have to accept the alternative, an ankle shackle. ICE had already offered her an $8000 bond, but that was well outside of her family’s means. She was stuck here for almost two months, and was losing hope, especially for her child.
We knew we could not attain the minimum bond with the documents her sponsor had provided her, so we told her we would ask the judge for a few days to gather those documents. The judge had no problem with this, and we set up a meeting for later in the day to talk about what her sponsor needed to get together. This was the situation that many women found themselves in, and without legal representation to aid them in lowering their bonds, they were stuck in detention for months with a bond that their families could simply not pay, some set as high as $9000. A recent new alternative for them? Wearing an ankle shackle with the requirement to report to ICE offices regularly, for an unclear amount of time. They have to pay for the use of the ankle shackle, exactly like what criminals wear when they are under house arrest.
I noticed Mariposa sitting in the benches behind us while we took care of the hearing with her mother, and Mariposa might have turned out to be the quietest, well-behaved child in court during the whole week. I wondered why she was so quiet, and after Monday, I would learn why. I would learn why she wanted to be a butterfly, and why her mother and she were here. I would learn why C and the other detainees felt disrespected and distraught, why their children looked sick and hopeless, and why I was truly here.
To be continued…