Independence Day. 2018
Almost three years ago I spent a week helping to represent women and children in a “family detention” prison in South Texas. This group was part of the “surge” of asylum seekers from Central America, overwhelmingly from three countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
I wasn’t that well prepared for this. But I wanted to help support an initiative to provide legal representation for these women and children. In my early years of practice as an immigration lawyer, I had been heavily involved in asylum work, mostly with people arriving from Somalia, Ethiopia, etc. Ramon, my associate and a native Spanish speaker, did the heavy lifting in working with these women, and then later returned for several months to continue working with them.
Lots of people have chronicled the detention of women and children at Dilley, Texas, and I don’t need to go over all that ground again, except to point out a few things. Prior policies had been to permit asylum seekers to enter the country if they could show a “credible fear” of persecution. They would be given notice for a future court date and released to prepare for that eventual hearing. As the surge intensified, the administration sought to discourage the flow and began detaining families, sometimes for extended periods. In the early days of this policy, more than 90% of the families arriving were determined not to have a credible fear and were sent back. As volunteer lawyers started showing up, that number dropped dramatically.
But prolonged detention was still a real humanitarian problem. Lawsuits resulted in the Flores decision which set limits on how long children could be detained in certain kinds of facilities (like the private prison at Dilley). Cynical attempts were made to qualify the Dilley prison as a “child care facility” so that detention could be maintained. Finally, women and children began being released with ankle monitors or bonds to ensure attendance at their asylum hearings.
I should clarify that these events took place during the Obama administration. We did not support family detention for asylum seekers during that time, and do not now. Children do not belong in prison, even with their mothers. But that is not to be confused with the current attempts at “deterrence” by the Trump administration, which have included charging asylum seekers with criminal entry and forcing the separation of children from their families, a situation that has still not been rectified, and is nothing short of a humanitarian evil.
It should also be noted that although the Trump administration has announced no more family separations, the apparent plan is to provide for long term family detention. They have sought to modify the Flores requirements.
Again, children do not belong in prison. We referred to the prison at Dilley as “baby jail.”
This would seem to be self-evident, that children don’t belong in prison. Lots of people have described the damaging effects on developing children to undergo this kind of loss of freedom.
Make no mistake. These private prisons like the one at Dilley are real prisons. Guards are everywhere. We had to go through metal detectors every day. I had a can of peanuts confiscated because, although the can was cardboard, the bottom was aluminum. One female attorney was told she couldn’t enter the facility with high heels. We weren’t allowed to touch or hug the children. We weren’t allowed to even bring in crayons and coloring books. I would bring in M&Ms for myself and then slip one to a child every now and then when the guards weren’t looking.
We prepared affidavits describing the abuse of the families that took place at this private prison (I emphasize “private” because it is a “for profit” institution, whose purpose is to make money for its investors). Children were not given proper medical treatment. On more than one occasion we saw children who had 101+ degree fevers for days, made to wait in line in the Texas sun to see a doctor, only to be told to “drink more water.”
The legal situation there was also a mess, with the government trying to move as many people through the system as quickly as possible, and worn out legal staffers working around the clock trying to keep up with the workload and with clueless volunteers like myself, and give the families a chance for a minimal amount of preparation before their credible fear interviews.
A lot could be said about all that, but what I remember most about Dilley are the women. They sat across from us, often cradling an infant, and told horrific stories. Stories of rapes, death threats, businesses destroyed by gangs, extortion, murder and terror. They told about reporting these things to the police and being ignored, or having their attacker arrested, and then released the next day only to terrorize again. They told about trying to escape to another part of the country for safety, and still being pursued and found. They told about their sons being recruited by the gangs that run the country as soldiers and their daughters as “wives” for the gang members.
And the children. Some almost comatose and unresponsive, staring into space, not acknowledging us. Others were still keen eyed and even smiled at us. Almost all of them seemed sick in one way or another.
These were not “economic migrants” as the current administration wants to characterize them. Indeed, although they should not have been treated as criminals and placed in prison, I didn’t meet one that said they would prefer returning home. They didn’t belong in prison, but they preferred that to returning.
And they hoped. Hoped America would fulfill the promise they had grown up with. A promise of compassion from the “Mother of Exiles” for the wretched, poor, and tired.
As I looked at these women, my overwhelming conviction was not one of pity, or even of anger at our defective system. But admiration. Admiration for the courage these women showed in taking their most precious possessions – their children – and making the dangerous crossing through Mexico (where they were often robbed, raped, beaten, and turned back many times before making it across), and then arriving in the U.S. only to be detained and treated as criminals. But still having hope and a steely determination.
These are courageous people. These were heroic journeys they had undertaken. Not everyone has the courage to leave their home, even in the most catastrophic circumstances. But these ladies risked their own lives and futures to protect their children. What an abomination for them now to be characterized as criminals or drug dealers or freeloaders, wanting to find loopholes and take advantage of American generosity. They aren’t asking for a handout – only the opportunity to breathe free.
There was a saying in the early days of U.S. immigration and the settlement of the west:
“The cowards never started. The weak died on the way. Only the strong arrived. They were the pioneers.”
I still see immigrants that way. The most patriotic Americans you will ever see are immigrants. If you don't believe me, attend a naturalization ceremony some day. I picture these ladies as just like our lionized ancestors that settled this country. They are the new Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, etc. – once despised as unworthy arrivals but contributing immeasurably to the fabric of the country. Brave, free, strong, and hopeful for the future.
On this Independence Day, I choose to recognize that the spirit of courage that settled this country decades ago continues to rest in these strong families seeking refuge and opportunity.