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A Week at Dilley: Fragomen Fellow Caitlin Miner-Le Grand on the Situation at South Texas Family Residential Center

by Caitlin Miner-Le Grand, Fragomen Fellow November 2, 2018

Caitlin Miner-Le Grand, Fragomen Fellow at the City Bar Justice Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, recalls her experiences this October at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, where immigrant women and children are being detained.

Deep in southern Texas, just over an hour outside of San Antonio, there is a large detention center housing mothers and children in the very small rural town of Dilley. The women there are awaiting Credible Fear Interviews, which will determine whether they meet the threshold to be able to claim asylum before an immigration judge. If they receive a positive determination, they can be released to pursue their claims. If they receive a negative determination, following a limited opportunity for appeal, they will be deported. I spent one week there in late October, working within a larger group of volunteers as part of Fragomen’s ongoing pro bono efforts at the border.

Since 2015, a coalition of immigration organizations has funded a small legal staff, supported by rotating groups of volunteers, to serve the families at Dilley. Over the past 3 years, the City Bar Justice Center has been involved in 7 different trips to family detention centers on the border. One takeaway is clear: family-based detention seems to be here to stay.

The best way to describe the scene is organized chaos. You walk through a security trailer, complete with an x-ray machine and metal detector, turn over your ID, and receive a “legal volunteer” badge. You walk over a metal bridgeway into a much larger trailer. There, groups of women sit in two large circles. Some hold children on their laps while other children gather in a smaller room with a TV or squabble over crayons. Most are under 4—the older children are at a school run within the detention center. The next 12 hours pass in a blur. Groups of women come and go. Every day there are multiple group intakes and group legal orientations to the credible fear process.

A few times a week, there are group presentations on the release process. Volunteers, guided by a small and dedicated legal staff, take women individually into smaller rooms to ask them why they fled their countries. These interviews are highly emotional. As members of the volunteer legal team, our job is to ask them probing questions about recent, traumatic events. This is to prepare them on how to most effectively present their claims to the asylum officer conducting their Credible Fear interview. “But why?” we ask them. “How did you know that the police wouldn’t help you?” We explain that the officer will ask these questions, and urge them to have anecdotal explanations ready. Other volunteers might attend a credible fear interview, to provide support to a mother. Others still will represent mothers who received negative determinations in a video-conferenced appeal before an immigration judge.

Mothers with children have been detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas since December 2014. It has a capacity of over 2,000. The week that I visited, the detention center was at close to capacity. Some families had been apprehended after crossing the border without inspection and others had presented themselves at ports of entry to request asylum. Most were recent arrivals. The majority were from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, though team members also met with mothers from Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Congo. Almost every mother that I met with described scenes of horrific violence that prompted their flight. Because of the dedication of the on the ground staff and the rotating volunteers, the vast majority of these women will be released with ankle monitors and told to report to ICE. They will then begin to seek legal representation and pursue their claim for asylum in immigration court—often a years-long process. Despite these high hurdles, a recent study by the American Immigration Council, found that 96% of released families seeking asylum attended all of their immigration court hearings.

While the mothers I spoke with  reported that the conditions at Dilley are better than those at the border, there is no mistaking that it is a jail-like facility. The conditions of detention of immigrant children are currently governed by the Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA). In recognition of the special vulnerabilities of children, the FSA places protective limitations on how all children—both accompanied and unaccompanied—can be detained. It mandates that children not be housed in “secure,” jail-like settings, with a 20 day limit for emergency “influx” situations. The Dilley detention center is a secure facility and is intended only as a short term stop. However, there was a smaller group who had been there since July—mothers and children who were separated following the administration’s zero tolerance policy in May 2018 and then reunited in July. Pursuant to a different class action lawsuit, that group was receiving another round of Credible Fear Interviews because their first interviews were conducted under extreme duress following their separations. These long-awaited interviews could determine whether they were able to be released from the detention center.

Fathers and sons, meanwhile, are currently detained at a separate family residential center in Karnes, Texas. I spent a week there in September, also helping to prepare fathers for Credible Fear Interviews, as well as preparing declarations for court hearings and assisting fathers who decided they wanted to pursue a deportation order.

Following the public outcry this summer after the Administration imposed a zero tolerance policy that resulted in separating parents and children at the border, the Administration has now introduced a proposed regulation to replace the terms of the Flores Settlement. Public comments are due by November 6, 2018. The proposed rule purports to codify the current FSA, with some significant changes. It replaces a state-licensing requirement with a self-licensing system—concerning given documented instances of ICE contractors not meeting requisite standards. It severely curtails the FSA’s “general policy favoring release” by restricting the individuals to whom children can be released. Overall, it grants increased flexibility to ICE while limiting options for families. The City Bar is currently preparing a public comment on the proposed regulation. Once it is promulgated, it will change the face of family detention, most likely leading to prolonged detention for parents and children.I am currently drafting comments opposing these changes.

The week was extremely grueling. I kept reminding myself how remarkable it was to be there at all, seeing firsthand a system that is often hidden away in remote, hard to access locations. It is only through the ongoing, dedicated efforts of the Dilley Pro Bono Project that the families detained at Dilley receive any legal representation at all. They rely on donations and volunteers including the many dedicated attorneys from the Fragomen firm, and keep going despite difficult conditions. The Dilley Pro Bono Project is a success story of what can be accomplished through the cooperation of legal organizations and the commitment of pro bono volunteers. As long as family detention is a reality, their work—and ours—is not done.

Read about our experience visiting a Cayuga Center in Harlem, where immigrant children separated from their parents are being detained: Little Ones in Limbo.

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