By Carlos A. Valenzuela, an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow with the Safe Passage Project; Claire R. Thomas is an attorney with the Safe Passage Project and teaches at New York Law School; Ernie Collette is a Government Benefits and Immigration Attorney at MFY Legal Services; Marilyn E. Alvarado is a first generation college graduate from CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice and paralegal with Safe Passage Project; Michelle Castaneda is a Ph.D. Candidate in the department of Theatre and Performance Studies at Brown University. Her research focuses on theorizing the intersection of theatrical performance and the law.
In February 2016, Claire and Michelle traveled 80 miles southwest of San Antonio to the small town of Dilley, Texas, to volunteer for a week at the South Texas Residential Facility; a detention center that houses immigrant mothers and children. We provided legal assistance and bore witness to the stories of Central American women and children who were victims of domestic violence, child abuse, extreme poverty, state neglect, and terrorization by gang members in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and fled for their lives to the United States. Many sought reunification with loved ones, but often experienced kidnapping, extortion, sexual assault, forced labor and other forms of violence on the journey north.
This time, on December 11th, three lawyers (Carlos, Claire, Ernie), a graduate student (Michelle) and a legal advocate (Marilyn) are teaming up to volunteer for a week at the South Texas Residential Facility to offer help to even more Central American women and children. We will combine our knowledge of immigration law and of Central America, and our Spanish language and interviewing skills to provide refugee women and children with representation. We wish we could spend more time, but work, teaching, monetary and familial obligations allow us only this brief period of one week to volunteer.
As a diverse group of Americans, we are committed to social justice. We will listen, raise our voices, and act. We are prepared to do our part to defend and protect those who are the most vulnerable–refugee women and children coming to the United States in search of basic safety and dignity. With the recent election and looming inauguration, we are anxious, concerned, and frankly, horrified about the new Administration’s proposed treatment of immigrants and all marginalized groups.
Called the “Other Refugee Crisis,” one that is happening much closer to home, the stories of these Central American women and children continue to remain largely absent from the media even with the recent election. Despite a federal judge ordering the release of refugee mothers and children from detention on multiple occasions, these asylum-seekers are still being detained. Immigration detention is a for-profit industry, with a daily quota mandated by Congress of over 33,000 beds at private prison corporations throughout the United States. Although a recent report commissioned by DHS determined that family detention is inappropriate and ineffective, and although the Department of Justice is phasing out contracts with private prisons due to inefficacy and abuse, the practice of incarcerating refugee families continues. These families, often young women and their children, continue to be housed in remote locations in Texas, denied medical care, and left without counsel to argue their release from detention and their right to seek asylum in the United States.
The current Administration continues raids and round-ups of Central American immigrants throughout the United States, and we assume only the worst for the incoming Administration. Women and children arrested during these raids are also put into immigration detention, and have been deported back to the countries from which they fled. While the U.S. State Department has recognized El Salvador and Honduras as among the most dangerous in the world and has evacuated the Peace Corps from El Salvador, deportations to these countries continue. Many deportees did not receive notice of their removal hearings and many did not have counsel, as there is no appointed counsel in immigration removal proceeding . We believe that this systemic incarceration and deportation of women and children is a denial of due process rights, and is quite frankly, inhumane.
We understand that this week will not be easy. Claire and Michelle’s previous trip to Dilley was eye-opening and non-stop. Nevertheless, we are committed to serving refugee women and children fleeing violence in Central America, and are humbled to have the opportunity to use our knowledge and skills to help in our own small way. We are honored to join attorneys, law students, social workers, interpreters, and other interested persons who volunteer to make a difference in the lives of refugee women and children through the CARA Pro Bono Project, an amazing volunteer-based organization created in the summer of 2014 by 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. In order to best manage the high caseload, CARA has established a system in which volunteer teams each commit one week of intensive work.
During our trip, we will be sending nightly emails (and videos, wifi speed permitting) from the great state of Texas. We will be posting nightly reflections through our friends at Law@theMargins. Please tweet, post to facebook and forward to your networks. This message needs to be spread far and wide. After returning to New York, we hope to continue to disseminate what we have learned first-hand about the inhumane practice of detaining mothers and children through Claire’s column with the American Anthropological Association, Op-Eds, Michelle’s academic publications, and blog postings.
If you can help us by making a donation, we would greatly appreciate it. We are thankful for any contribution of any size that you are able to make to our effort . We are mostly unfunded and as such, we’re trying to break even with our expenditures for Dilley. You can support the team by donating here.