If you saw the recent Frontline show about child separations at the U.S. border, you caught at least a glimpse of the so-called “South Texas Family Residential Center” in Dilley, Texas.
Regular Nolo writer Kyle Knapp got a closer look at this facility recently. He spent a week volunteering there, along with other attorneys, all helping women and children (the center’s sole occupants) prepare to present their asylum cases to U.S. government officials. I (Ilona Bray, Nolo author) spoke with Kyle about his experience; here is some of what he said.
Ilona: We hear conflicting stories about conditions in immigrant detention facilities. Some say they’re cages or prisons, others say they’re like summer camp. Where does the Dilley facility fall on this spectrum?
Kyle: Well, at least the center wasn’t slapped together overnight—someone said it was built as a barracks for workers in the oil industry. Still, it looks like a military facility, and it’s run like a prison. I’d get there between 7 and 9 a.m. every day (depending upon the project manager’s directions and number of clients) and stay until between 5 and 8 p.m., even if I wasn’t working that whole time. Going through all the security procedures isn’t something you want to do more than once in a day.
My time was mostly spent in the legal visitation center, about the size of a doublewide trailer. If I needed to go to the courtroom or asylum ofice, I was escorted by one of the ubiquitous walkie-talkie toting staff members in khaki pants and a maroon polo shirt. I wasn’t allowed to see inside the detainees’ housing area.
Even without being detained, Dilley is a difficult area to live in. It’s hot, and one can’t drink the water, or even brush one’s teeth with it, due to fracking. One lawyer told me the water peeled her fingernail polish right off—not anyone’s biggest concern, but alarming when you consider the chemistry of it.
Ilona: Take us through your work with one of the people you met there. What were you able to do for them—and not do?
Kyle: Step one was often to meet with a group. For instance, a busload of recently reunited women and children arrived while I was there. We explained that we weren’t from the government and were offering free help. They needed to sign paperwork—and we needed to deal with what they’d already signed. Children had agreed to their own deportation after being told, according to them, “Want to see your mother again? Sign here.”
Then it was time for individual consultations.
Let’s take the case of a woman I’ll call Juana, who arrived with her daughter, around nine years old. They were fleeing threats from gang members.
Before Jeff Sessions became AG and began issuing his own decisions in place of the Board of Immigration Appeals, Juana’s need for protection from these gangs could alone have provided grounds for asylum. We could have wrapped up our interview in a half hour. But no longer.
I dug deeper. Here I was, a stranger, asking Juana to pour out personal matters. Still, she said nothing that would tip the balance in her favor. On a hunch, I had her daughter go wait in the TV room, then asked Juana whether her childhood was happy. She said no, and bit by bit, in tears, told me about having been raped multiple times by a cousin at age seven.
That information might help her case—if something horrific has happened in the applicant’s home country, humanitarian concerns might bolster the case.
Wrapping up, I explained to Juana what the most important parts of her claim were, so that she’d be sure to mention them before the government officials she would meet with later. Then, I was on to my next meeting.
Ilona: What happens to the women and children you met with next?
Kyle: Dilley is not the first stop for them—many had spent a week in one of those freezer-like facilities already—but it’s a crossroads. Here, government officials decide whether to clear them to proceed with requesting asylum in front of an immigration judge.
If cleared, they are released on bond or with an ankle monitoring device. If not, they’re deported to their home country.
I’ll probably never find out what ultimately happens to the women and children I met with. Their full asylum hearings may occur anywhere in the U.S., depending on whether they had a family member to stay with.
The vast majority were fleeing terrible situations, which they described in convincing detail—death threats, family members killed, children dropping out of school because the streets aren’t safe to walk on. Still, that doesn’t guarantee they’ll get asylum.
Only a few just said, “We’re looking for jobs,” or had only vague fears that didn’t seem to have affected their day-to-day existence.
As for the deportations, I never saw them happen. I’m guessing the government waits until all the attorneys and visitors have gone home for the day.