Two Business Immigration Lawyers in “Baby Jail”: A Report from Dilley

“I can barely handle being a prisoner here….”

These were the first words spoken to us by a young woman in her mid-twenties, we’ll call her “Ana”, who fled Honduras with her two-year-old daughter to escape death threats from gang members in her town.  Ana then went on to describe the tortuous process of getting medical attention for her daughter who lost 10 percent of her body weight while incarcerated in the Dilley detention facility.

Although the officials call Dilley the “South Texas Family Residential Center” and the company that administers the facility, CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America or “CCA”) calls its employees “Residential Supervisors” rather than guards, make no mistake–the mothers, babies, and children “residing” here are detained in prison-like conditions. That’s why most volunteers working with the Dilley Pro Bono Project call it “Baby Jail.”

And while both of us have been here before, it’s neither easy nor less disturbing to see first-hand the evidence of how our government treats mothers and babies who are detained while awaiting initial screening of their asylum requests.  Most of the mothers we met had sick children and told of long (often 5-6 hours) waits to see on-site medical staff only to be refused necessary treatment. Ana told us that despite several trips to the medical trailer, it was almost impossible to get any medical attention for her pale, lethargic daughter. More than one mother told us that they decided not to take their child to the medical trailer because they had heard that they would spend all day waiting for nothing.

These examples are neither new nor unique and in our view, that’s the worst part. Whether or not you believe these women and children deserve to be granted asylum in the United States, there is no question that the most powerful and prosperous nation in history can, and must, improve conditions for those in its custody seeking humanitarian protection.

All of our efforts on behalf of these women fleeing persecution occurred in the context of an administration that wants to cut back on asylum and perceives rampant fraud to exist in credible fear determinations, which is the initial stage of the asylum process. From speaking with dozens of these brave women while we were “on the ground” at Dilley recently, we found their claims of threats and violence both compelling and highly credible.

Having fled from countries where the rule of law has largely evaporated, these women and children are the victims of death threats and violence by gangs. We met with women ranging in age from early 20s to early 40s who had no desire to leave their countries until they found themselves on the wrong side of a weapon.  Many have spent years supporting themselves and their children and it was their intention to continue to do so until, targeted with violence, they had no choice but to flee their home, leaving behind all that they knew, including sons and daughters, whom they might never see again.

It was also disturbing to observe how undervalued, or in many situations, unvalued women are in these societies. A common theme of many of the women with whom we met was that they were first victimized by a parent, then by a partner, and finally by the gangs. The psychological acceptance of this cycle of violence was epitomized by one woman who told us “my first husband raped me when I was 12 but he was a pretty decent guy. My second husband was the really bad one…”

Volunteering at Dilley changes lives. It saves lives. You can save lives. Even lawyers like ourselves, who practice primarily business immigration law, can have a profound impact. But the sad reality is that the demand for volunteer legal services at the Baby Jail vastly exceeds the current capacity of the on the ground staff and volunteers. That’s where you come in. If you’ve never been “on the ground” at Baby Jail or if it’s been a while, there’s never been a better time to make a difference. Take a look at your calendar, set up your out-of-office reply, and save a life!

by Michael Turansick and Rebecca van Uitert