Sunday is Mother’s Day in the U.S. and having just met some of the most incredible mothers I have ever encountered, I wanted to share that experience. In Dilley, TX, I met countless mothers who risked their lives to come to the U.S. for their children. Not for economic reasons, not for “a better life,” but for the chance for their children to survive, because that is what a mother does.
Primarily, I am a business immigration attorney. I think in terms of Hs, PERM, Es, O-1s and the rest of the business immigration alphabet. However, I have been hearing a lot about the families who have asylum cases that desperately need help in Artesia, Dilley, and Karnes for the last two years and I kept thinking about lending a hand. Throughout my career I have taken on a handful of pro bono cases and have volunteered at clinics and citizenship day events, but I could do more.
When the New York chapter sent emails around asking people to go on a team, my immediate reaction was, “Let me donate some money instead.” I don’t do well roughing it. I don’t even go camping. I’m not saying I am a princess, but my slippers are high-heeled. My idea of roughing it is waiting for my martini for an additional ten minutes. Trust me, my friends think of me more as “Business Immigration Barbie” than “Detainee Defender.”
The thought of taking a week off and going to a jail each day seemed ludicrous. I don’t speak Spanish. And I was terrified that since I am not an expert in refugee, asylum, or removal defense immigration, I would make the situation worse for these detained mothers and their children.
But the trip was scheduled for three weeks after H-1B cap season – the timing would never get any better – so I considered my workload and personal commitments, and signed up.
In preparation, we were sent tons of materials to read, podcasts to listen to, videos to watch, and past blogs to read. I got through *most of it* but I must confess, not all. We prepped on conference calls and then arrived on Sunday for three hours of orientation.
We had our first “big table meeting” at the CARA ranch, which is where the “On the Ground,” or OTG, staff congregate and live. The big table is an end of the day group discussion to see how the day went and to bring up any issues or challenges. OTG kindly took us through what a typical day would look like, and frankly no day is “typical,” but there are particular events. Each day, there are group preparations and then individual preparations, scheduled every two hours from 8am to 6pm. Due to the excellent Law Lab software system, there is a way to track each woman and her children, so even if you aren’t the initiating attorney, you will be able to read the case history notes and understand what process the women have been through prior to meeting you.
Compared to the women in detention, we certainly did not face a hardship. But for some spoiled New Yorkers like me, not being able to drink tap water (Dilley is a fracking town and the tap water has three times the amount of arsenic than other towns), or be able to get take-out delivered is “roughing it.” But now I am just being difficult. The Days Inn was clean and nice, and certainly more pleasant than a prison cell.
The next day, we arrived at the facility at 7am with no cell phones, hand lotion, baby wipes, mirrors, make-up bags, open-toed shoes, sheer clothing, or short clothing, which is all in line with prison visit etiquette. Our task was to meet with the women in groups to go over the laymen’s version of “particular social groups.” We listened and took notes on their stories and helped to prepare them for Credible Fear Interviews. For the post-decision women, we would listen to their stories again and draft declarations to try and see if anything had been missed. In between, there were research projects on case law and a lot of data entry. With the chain of absolutely necessary steps volunteers must take comes the danger of losing vital information.
Meeting the mothers coming to get help is surreal. To be honest, I was expecting orange jumpsuits. Not necessarily a scene out of “Orange is the New Black” but certainly I was expecting prison uniforms. The women have to wear t-shirts the color of Easter Skittles. While you might think that I am being trite, don’t forget that the government is trying to convince everyone that it is OK to keep these women and their children locked up and this is a “friendly” detention center. Regardless of what inmates are wearing, they are still inmates.
As I start hearing stories, so many similar experiences crop up. While the age of the women ranges, they have all lived a tragic life: beaten, robbed, raped. And they are surrounded by children. It is bizarre to see babies, actual babies, in jail. So unsure of their surroundings and learning to talk and walk.
I was astounded at the number of women who were entrepreneurial. As a person who files a lot of business visas, I was surprised how many women had started their own businesses, or worked and were very astute with money, which in turn had made them the target of extortion. These are not women coming to the U.S. to seek welfare or assistance. They are incredibly hardworking mothers.
By the second day in the detention center, things were a bit more manic. Ever experienced “Bring Your Child to Work” day? Imagine that but with scared, sick, disoriented toddlers. As we prepped these mothers, they didn’t know whether to ask us questions or tend to their young child. The low point was certainly a three-year-old who couldn’t cope with it all and had a meltdown as we prepared her mother for an interview with an asylum officer, on which rests a critical judgment as to whether they get to stay and pursue asylum or get sent back to El Salvador where she has received multiple death threats from a powerful transnational criminal organization, or “gang.” In the way of children everywhere, the same little girl got a twinkle in her eye and a smile from a picture of a crappy flower I had drawn on a yellow legal pad. Somehow this just seemed so very sad.
On day three in detention, we had IHOL day: International House of Languages. Back at the FEMA trailer, (yes, we are working out of FEMA trailers) in the midst of mostly Spanish speakers, there were individual Romanian, Haitian and Uzbek speakers. In an already lonely and desperate situation these women are even more lonely and lost. Isolated and confused, they cannot communicate with us. We can at least explain what is going on to the others but these ladies were completely alone. Luckily, we were able to utilize social networks to get some interpreters on the phone to help out.
Day four in detention was Toddler Thursday. The school was closed and the daycare was full, so more of the women had their babies with them. Nothing like doing a credible fear interview prep when your client is holding another sobbing client. So I popped the 15-month-old on my lap, continued the prep and then cleaned smushed banana off my laptop.
In the midst of tending to her child, she told me her story. She had opened a small store to support herself and her family. The MS gang started demanding weekly payments for protection. She refused. They came to her house and pointed a gun at her four year old daughter unless she starts paying. There is nowhere else to go. So she fled. But it’s not until we are carefully reviewing the details of her life for the third or fourth time that she mentions, “Yes, when I was ten, I was raped by a gang member. But that is not important. This is the first time I have ever talked about this.”
It was hard not to be stunned by this statement. These women are so brave, so strong, and incredibly selfless.
Day five in detention was our last day there and there was some great news – a lady who previously was denied by an asylum officer had a review of that negative decision in front of a judge. Well, “in front” of a judge via video conference in Miami. This terrified woman had to explain why she feared for her child in her country. Nervous and shaky, she answered the judge’s questions. Fortunately, the judge overturned the asylum officer’s decision. The next step was to obtain bond for the client. There are so many steps in the process to freedom. This release is just the beginning of their immigration path.
The time in the detention center was over. Now we faced the journey home. As we left in our comfortable rental car, then by plane, and finally a town car home, I considered how these women traveled to the U.S. They traveled on foot, by bus, and through a river. Some lost documents. Others lost lives. Some got separated from their families. All for their children. We are all lucky to be able to complain about our martini being delivered ten minutes late.
But what did I help accomplish?
– 298 Intakes
– 239 Credible Fear Hearing Preps
– 75 Follow-up client meetings
– 12 Bond Hearings
– 8 Negative Fear Reviews
– 222 women given Post-release Information
– 396 women and children RELEASED!
I humbly thank the volunteers before me and, of course, the staff on the ground who work 24/7 to coordinate this project. I have heard many people say they could not volunteer for a week or felt guilty that they could not contribute to helping. Everyone has different abilities and work situations. As a solo practitioner, I had to balance many commitments and it was not easy to get away. Coordinating with a team and asking other lawyers to help me with coverage definitely helped. So, if I can do it, so can you. You really can. I’m living proof. Helping these families was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. In particular in light of Mother’s Day, since each and every woman I encountered came not for themselves, but for their children, this work is so important. Come on down!
Written by Neena Dutta, AILA Board of Governors member