Ernie Collette is a Government Benefits and Immigration Attorney at MFY Legal Services.
Dilley is half-way between San Antonio and the border at Laredo, Texas. Transportation for detainees only goes so far as transportation into and out of the center. Apparently inspired by the rugged individualism of the United States in the early 20th Century, the detention center does enough to ensure that families arrive to the San Antonio airport with a sack lunch before they themselves have to navigate how to leave San Antonio and travel safely to their final destination.
Many of the women and children, who leave either with the clothes on their backs or what the detention center provided to them during their stay, have never travelled on airplanes. In particular, with the holiday rush and because of a lack of direct flights leaving from San Antonio, many families have no idea how to navigate connecting flights when most will have to take at least two flights to be reunited with friends or family.
Many of the plane tickets are purchased by friends or family at last-minute prices because most are told that they will be released only a couple of days after receiving their positive credible fear interview. Sometimes the facility lets the mothers know that there will be a delay in their exit from the facility, causing families to reschedule tickets at exorbitant prices and with considerable penalties. These prices are especially compounded because of the holiday season. As a result, many travelers are not provided emergency money by their family to purchase either food or surprise accommodations in case of delayed or cancelled flights. Even if there are no complications with release, many friends and families due to their own financial situations can only afford to cover the cost of airfare.
Most travelers, if not all, do not speak English, and some may not even speak Spanish but one of the many indigenous languages unique to Central America. If there is a gate change, or a delay, or a cancellation, many are uncertain what flight to take or if they would have to sleep overnight at the airport. Finally, if many are on standby, they may not know that they have to go up to the gate attendant to request their seats before it is too late and are released to other passengers.
I witnessed all of this when I arrived at my airline gate, seeing several families trying to determine if they could get on this connecting flight to arrive somewhere far from Dilley. With the help of fellow volunteers who happened to be scheduled on the same flight, we spoke with the gate attendants to determine if any families needed to stay at the airport overnight, if any family needed to get seat assignments, and, once on the flight, we spoke with the flight attendants to help the families find their seats. I also took this opportunity while at the gate to answer any questions about how to look for free legal services when hiring an attorney to work on their asylum claim and to warn the families about notario fraud.
Based on this experience, and the similar experiences expressed by other volunteers, we should strive to create a better system that safely guides women and children from Dilley to their final destination in the United States. The overwhelming majority of these women and children travelled thousands of miles through inhospitable and hostile areas, facing threats of kidnapping, murder, sexual assault, and rape, both at home and during the journey, by gang members, smugglers, and other officials. Once inspected, they are often held in iceboxes or cells resembling kennels before being placed in detention. After scrutinizing their fear, we must develop a better system that makes it easier for the recently released to find their way into what will hopefully be their new country.
When you compare the initial journey to the United States, the inspection at the border, the detention at Dilley, and the steps required to be released, navigating an airport and traveling from San Antonio to a final destination doesn’t seem like it should attract much fanfare. A night on an airport floor would seem infinitely better than another night in detention, and that many Americans often sleep on the floor of an airport rather than obtaining any accommodation.
However, to casually dismiss this as a low priority on the list of concerns would be to dismiss the actual fear that I witnessed from several women who cried because they did not know if they were going to leave that night, where they were going to stay, how they were going to eat, if they would find a flight in the morning, and how they were going to call their loved ones to let them know of their current situation. In addition, unlike many Americans who have options when they are stranded at an airport, the majority of these women and children do not have a choice: with no affordable place to stay, either they board a flight or they wait at the airport until that option becomes available.
In fact, when the front gate announced that the names of the families should come to the desk to receive their seat assignments (an announcement that was given in English) after translating the announcement, several mothers whom we accompanied to the counter jumped from their seats, and sprinted to the attendant because they were not sure that by not getting their first before anyone else that they would be seated on this flight.
By not providing the ease of travel for the recently released we add another unnecessary frustration for women and children who have already had to cope with a treacherous journey and the fear that their stories of violence would not be enough to allow them to remain in the United States. Designated volunteers could assist at the airport in the following ways: donations for food, blankets, emergency accommodations, donations for airline miles, used cell phones with minutes or texting capabilities to contact loved ones, or work with the airlines to inform and better assist passengers or agreeing to waive change fees due to fault by the detention facility. This minimal assistance can make a huge difference to detainees releases, and with concerted coordination can realistically take-off.
This also highlights to advocates that even if you’re no longer in the detention facility, and even if it is not law-related, the work continues. For these families, this flight is the beginning of a long and arduous process where they will be forced at times to master policies and structures from our culture that they never imagined they ever would have had to learn. At best, their journey will lead to residency and citizenship. At worst, and in despite of all of these efforts and best intentions, their journey may result in a lack of immigration relief and the stigma that our society places upon the undocumented.
This time, luckily all of the families were able to get off of standby and leave San Antonio. Upon arrival, we were able to navigate the families to their gates, ensuring that this is where they needed to go to catch their final flight and away from this entire ordeal. Thoughtful of my experiences at the airport, I hope to be more mindful than I already am of this so that I can provide even more assistance to my clients, many of whom experienced this kind of departure from detention and into what will hopefully become a new life in the United States.