Report from Baby Jail on our Border

I just got back from a week of volunteering in Dilley, Texas at the South Texas Family Residential Facility (AKA Baby Jail) and I have some things to report. I am a young immigration attorney from Santa Fe, New Mexico. I run a non-profit there called Santa Fe Dreamers Project that provides free legal services to undocumented immigrants but I also volunteer, when life permits me, for the CARA Pro Bono Project. CARA is a volunteer group of attorneys and advocates giving all they have to defend Central American families seeking refuge who are now being detained on our border.

Sadly, the policy and practice of family detention is alive and well in South Texas. Our government continues to criminalize women and children fleeing extraordinary violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These are people who are exercising their international right to ask for refuge and asylum. This criminalization takes many forms: their immediate detention in hieleras and perreras, the disgusting and degrading temporary holding facilities where women and children are brought when they are first apprehended; weeks and weeks detained in detention facilities; high bonds; being released with electronic monitoring bracelets. You can see the effect of this treatment on the women’s faces. They are being degraded and humiliated and demoralized for coming and asking for help. This is especially upsetting because, in nearly all the cases, these women and children have already been subjected to horrible suffering and violence in their own countries. I cannot put into words the sadness I feel when I play with a child in one of these facilities. I think about my own sweet niece and nephews and all the beautiful kids in my life and how intolerable it would be to me if they were detained and suffering like this. These kids should be no different.

Especially concerning is the fact that private corporations, the GEO Group and the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), who have partnered with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to run these centers are having their best years ever as they detain children. Corporate stakeholders are making millions in profit on this practice. It is easy to imagine how this corporate money from the prison lobby flows into the hands of our elected politicians to make sure that they don’t put a stop to this profitable business. Another example, yet, of how Citizens United continues to favor corporations over the rights and humanity of the people.

There are legal strategies being used to try and shut down Family Detention. For that last year the team has been pointing to the fact that these facilities are in violation of the Flores settlement which, among many other things, makes it unlawful to detain children in an unlicensed child care facility. In response, the state of Texas recently issued child care licenses to the Dilley and Karnes City facilities. Fortunately both of these licenses were enjoined by judges so at this point neither facilities are legally licensed. The Floresbased litigation is slow moving and complicated. Nearly a year ago Judge Gee in California ordered DHS to be in compliance with Flores or shut these facilities down yet DHS continues to violate the terms of that order.

The CARA Pro Bono Project continues to do an excellent job defending the interests of the women and children who are detained. The staff has developed incredible systems for dealing with the sheer volumes of people that they have seen. They have helped over 4,000 families this year alone. We saw 300 people released the week I was there yet sadly just as many were admitted. It's not completely clear what the population of the center is because DHS will not share that information. The protocol CARA has developed is impressive but it is also disturbing . It is disturbing because in one way it feels like we are participating in the detention of these women, helping to put a humane touch on it, or even doing DHS’s job for them. When I first started on this project two years ago, when the first major family detention facility re-opened in Artesia, NM, it was wild and chaotic and scary and felt disruptive and like guerrilla lawyering. I did not feel like I was disrupting anything when I was in Dilley this week — not because the work isn’t radical and important but because the response has become so necessarily coordinated and efficient that the lawyering feels like a well designed element of the family detention experience. None of this should read as criticism of the CARA staff — each and everyone of them is fighting their asses off for the individual women and they are inspiring and amazing. We should all wish to be as brave as them.

The flow of migrants from CA is still strong in spite of the fact that for our part, the US is paying Mexico to try and stop migrants in their tracks. Yet there are still hundreds of thousands of people arriving every year. The stories of violence are incredible but sadly, routine. The mara continues to ravage the people of those nations and the state seems to have lost control. Not only can they not protect people from the gangs but they cannot or will not protect women from partner violence. For every story I heard about a gang members’ gun being held to someone’s head, I also heard a story of a partner's fist in someone’s face. Listening to the stories you get a sense of how cheap life is in Central America right now, especially women’s lives, and it is sickening to see our government work so hard to affirm how little their lives matter. Of course we know that isn’t true.

But our asylum system has been broken by these policies and the pressure of so many people. Family Detention is a disaster but even as families are released they face years and years of problems if they expect to make it through the asylum process. They leave these centers very much in deportation proceedings against a very aggressive and heartless opponent. There are not enough lawyers to take these cases. There are backlogs in the courts that may put people’s first hearings 3–5 years out. There are backlogs for providing green cards to kids from the Northern Triangle that will have children waiting years and years for a green card they are legally entitled to. Many people will lose their cases for procedural reasons and be deported without a judge ever considering the substance of their claim that their life is in danger if they are returned. Some of these people will die.

So our official policy is to strenuously try and not help desperate families, a policy that is as expensive as it is inhumane. I wonder constantly what the cost would be if we simply tried to help them instead — — if instead of presuming their criminal intent we listened to them and respected the credibility and the rationality of why they came here and the choices they made and took the time to repair the system that evaluates if it is safe to send them home.

Here is what I can offer in terms of what you can do.

  • Raise money not only to support the CARA Pro Bono Project but also local immigration organization that offer free counsel to families in deportation proceedings. There is such limited funding for this kind of work and a little can go a long way. Donate to CARA or get in touch with me to find out who is locally defending families in your area. For example in NM: Santa Fe Dreamers: New Mexico Immigrant Law Center:
  • If you are a lawyer or a law student a paralegal or a spanish speaker do consider contacting CARA and seeing if volunteering is a good fit.
  • Plan an educational event about these issues (hopefully one that raises funds too!)
  • Pass this story along to a friend who might know nothing about Family Detention — they might need some context from you but you can help open their eyes!
  • Insist publicly that we stop criminalizing the need to migrate and have faith that we can develop fair and humane policies if we let go of the need to punish people who are trying to stay alive against the ruthless violence and indifference of our world

I really want to re-iterate that last point: We need to insist publicly that our country stops criminalizing the need to migrate and have faith that we can develop fair and humane policies if we let go of the need to punish people who are trying to stay alive against the ruthless violence and indifference of our world.

by Allegra Love
Santa Fe Dreamers Project