It’s strange that the five days in Dilley felt both long and short at the same time. Long because we worked 12-hour days at the facility with maybe a 5-10 minute break, not including meetings after hours. It didn’t help that we had to save our bottled waters to last us 5 days to drink, brush our teeth, wash our produce, and in my case to pour into my instant lunches and dinners. Walking through the facility metal detectors, I always wondered if I had dressed conservatively enough to comply with the sexist dress code. The over-policing of the women, children, and the CARA staff & volunteers also made the days feel so much longer.
On the contrary, the women and children I met made the long days feel shorter, and by the end of the week, they made me feel like there was still so much that I needed to do. Every day, I met an adorable children and resilient women who were fleeing for their lives. The stories of what had happened to them in their home countries were heartbreaking, but so were the stories of re-traumatization that occurred once they crossed the border into the U.S. – the fear tactics used by border patrol, the stories of their time at the “perreras,” essentially large dog kennels and “heileras,” the rooms held at freezing temperatures intentionally so people would self deport.
One of the stories I heard was of a 3 year-old girl that was punished for eating an apple while in the perrera. Each person got an apple a day along with rice and beans to eat. The little girl couldn’t eat the rice and beans, so her mom saved her an apple, so her daughter had at least two apples to eat that day. An ICE officer saw her eat her mom’s apple and scolded her. The officer then told everyone that because the 3 year-old ate the apple, no one in the perrera was allowed to bathe for the next three days.
From the perreras/heileras, the women and children were then moved to the South Texas Family Residential Center. At this center, we were advised to not drink the water because it was contaminated with arsenic and E.coli. But it was still the water given to the women and children to drink. There were many children with untreated health conditions, because according to staff at the medical center, “in Honduras they give antibiotics for infections, but not here in the U.S.”. There were times that women were given a hard time to just get into the legal trailer until a volunteer advocated for that woman. Where we had to explain that even being a domestic violence victim might not be enough to pass their credible fear interviews. More heartbreaking than the stories of trauma experienced in their home countries, was their realization that our country is not the sanctuary so many think.
Leaving knowing all of that, and knowing that there will continue to be new women and children detained there every day, makes my heart heavy. But I remind myself that there is only so much I can do to tackle these systems of oppression. We worked extremely hard and prepared as many women as we could for their credible fear interviews.
On our flight back home, we flew back with a woman and child who had been released to continue their asylum cases in New York. Seeing them was reassuring. Although we could not stay longer, we helped countless women be well-prepared for their interviews, and that meant they had a higher chance of being released from detention and reuniting with their families in the U.S., even if only temporarily. It’s reassuring to know CARA has a 6-month wait list to volunteer, because that means there will be more people doing this necessary work. As for me, I will continue to practice trauma-informed lawyering with immigrant clients in New York.