Dilley TX, photo by Billy HathornIn December 2014, Dilley, Texas became home to the largest detention center in the United States, confining immigrant mothers and young children who manage to escape persecution in their Central American home countries. Since early September, the number of detainees in Dilley has remained at about 2,000. Nearly all are seeking asylum.

Upon arrival, most detainees are placed into expedited removal proceedings. They are detained at least until they can pass a “credible fear interview,” determining whether the immigrant’s fear of returning home is credible. Without legal representation, this process is fraught with risk: immigrants’ due process rights are often are violated, and vulnerable women and children face the very real prospect of being forced to return home to face more violence, and even death. Immigrants without representation must struggle with how to fit their immediate fears into the categories and terms used by asylum officers to evaluate their cases, while the interview process itself can also retraumatize them.

Advocates for immigrants deplore the practice of detaining families in large, prison-like facilities. A recent American Bar Association report describes detention centers as being “at odds with the presumption of liberty that should apply.” Policymakers and the courts have rejected the practice in the past, citing violations of the law, including minimum standards and conditions for housing, and the retention of minors in federal immigration custody. In addition, detention – especially in remote areas far from urban centers like Dilley – significantly impedes access to counsel, making it difficult if not impossible for immigrants to be guaranteed their due process rights.

In response to this crisis, The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, collectively known as CARA, have joined forces to create the CARA Pro Bono Project, which taps volunteer legal talent from across the U.S. The CARA team organizes volunteer legal teams, who commit to spending one week at the Dilley detention center. Every week a new team arrives to take over the caseload and carry the work forward.

In early October, thanks to funding from a private donor, a group of nine NYLAG staff members experienced in immigration and family law made the trip to Dilley. (Two other NYLAG staff members went to Dilley in September.)

Detainees are anchored to power outlets for one hour at a time while they wait for their ankle monitors to recharge. The charge lasts for just eight hours.

Detainees are anchored to power outlets for an hour everyday (sometimes twice per day) while they wait for their ankle monitors to recharge.

“We were limited to the visitor’s area – a double-wide truck where we would see waves of detainees, usually with babies in their arms and children at their feet – it was a pretty chaotic situation,” said Lindsey Kaley, a Post-Graduate Fellow in the Immigrant Protection and Matrimonial & Family Law Units. “We would have just a little time with each client to gain their trust, get them to show us their documents and tell their story.”

According to Clare Clayton, a paralegal in the Immigrant Protection Unit, “We could not see the detainees living quarters, but it was apparent that they were not adequate. Many of the children were listless, obviously ill, suffering from diarrhea and had head lice. Several women told me that they were not able to get medication or inhalers for their children. Officials said they were coming, and in the meantime told them to drink a lot of water.”

The legal staff’s primary task was to prepare immigrants for their credible fear interviews, although they also did intakes to collect general information like the names and ages of children and the names and contact information of family members in the U.S. whom detainees could go to upon release. The NYLAG team did 50 to 60 credible fear preps a day, trying to help women who were scared, confused and often in tears tell a stranger about very intimate and traumatic experiences, and talk about these disturbing things in front of their children. They estimate that a majority of the women they spoke with had at least one family member who had been killed.

“The credible fear interviews were difficult. Case law for asylum is very complicated. We needed to prepare victims who had experienced torture, rape, threats from gangs, domestic violence, and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for an interview where they need to describe the horrible things that happened to them in a way that will build a legal basis for their case. They need to provide evidence that will prove their claim that they deserve asylum,” said Jen Barker, a senior staff attorney with the Immigrant Protection Unit.

During their week in Dilley, NYLAG’s team saw on average 50 detainees per staff member. CARA estimates that 90 per cent of the detainees went on to pass their credible fear interviews. The other ten per cent were given the opportunity for their case to be reevaluated by a judge. Getting past the credible fear interview, however, is just the first step of many along the road to asylum, and the outcome is far from guaranteed. Several days after a successful credible fear interview, detainees are given two options for release to a family member. One is to appear at a bond hearing where approval can be granted for the detainee to post a $1,500 (or higher) bond – not an economic option for many families. The bond option requires detainees to remain in detention for an additional period of time, which many women do not want to do given the poor living conditions. The second option is to agree to wear an ankle monitor and leave detention immediately, but live for at least 90 days, if not far longer, with the stigma and humiliation that goes with it.

Neither option is attractive. But according to CARA staff on the ground in Dilley, the situation is made worse by the fact that many immigrants are forced to make this difficult choice without receiving accurate or complete information from immigration officials, who sometimes coerce detainees into choosing an option that may not be in their best interest, and prevent attorneys from advising their clients. In September, CARA submitted a formal complaint to the US Department of Homeland Security documenting intimidation, misinformation and violations of the right to counsel at the Dilley facility. The complaint called for an investigation into the federal government’s detention practices to ensure that they are free from coercion and systemic interference with rights to counsel and to fair process.

Despite these numerous and serious concerns, the NYLAG team in Dilley was impressed with how the CARA staff members empowered detainees by arming them with accurate information, educating them about their options, and reaching out to family members to smooth the way for their eventual release. The staff came back to New York grateful to have been part of a singular pro bono effort that is helping mothers and their children receive the legal representation they so desperately need.

The NYLAG Dilley team:

Jennifer Barker
Janice Chua
Melissa Chua,
Claire Clayton
Sara Kaczmarek
Lindsey Kaley
Wilson Osorio
Meeta Patel
Indiana Porta
Cristal Moncada
David Mullins