Photo: A recently released mother wears an electronic monitor.
"Have you ever seen a goat?" a volunteer asked our client’s 4-year-old son while they looked at a children’s book about animals.
"When they killed my uncle, bang bang bang bang!!!" He fired imaginary guns with his arms. "We went to the cemetery, and there were goats."
Like so many other kids I met while working as a volunteer attorney with the CARA Pro Bono Project in rural South Texas last month, he is sweet and bright-eyed. He fled to the United States with his mother, presenting a legitimate claim for asylum under our laws.
Now he is in jail.
To meet with his mother and the Project’s other clients, we have left behind personal items, gone through detectors, and been buzzed through metal doors. Our clients, too, have had their belongings—their clothes and their wedding rings— taken and replaced with standard-issue bright color T-shirts that identify the section of the facility that they are housed in.
We are at the South Texas Family “Residential Center”—a for-profit jail built last year by the Corrections Corporation of America to house thousands of mothers and children who have come to seek asylum from the violence in Central America. It is the largest immigrant detention center in the United States, and apparently, the world.
Ironically, long before it was built, the government agreed in response to a lawsuit that it should release immigrant children that it detains “without unnecessary delay.” It apparently recognized back then, in 1997, that detention harms children’s development and well-being. But twice this year, federal district judge Dolly M. Gee has called out the government for violating that agreement by detaining hundreds of immigrant children in facilities like the one I visited in Dilley, Texas.
Most mothers I talked to had to leave because the gangs that now control much of the region terrorized their families. I met boys ages 12 and 14 whose mother had pulled them from school and kept them inside the house for five months straight in order to keep them safe from a gang that was trying to forcibly recruit them. When the gang’s threats against the family escalated, she knew she had to get them out.
"I never wanted to leave my home. I loved my home," she told me, her eyes full of tears.
Like the other women I met, she had had to leave quickly and suddenly—some had left on less than one day’s notice—to escape mounting threats against her family’s lives. One woman confessed to me in grief that her husband had been forced to leave first, and that she had never heard from him since.
Now, in a rural Texas town of 4,000 people, they and some 1,900 other women and children are waiting in jail, for weeks and often months on end, for the United States government to decide what to do with them. To be here, they have endured and been surrounded by unspeakable violence, lived in paralyzing fear, and survived long and dangerous journeys.
They have been greeted with jail and an often dangerous disregard for their well-being and that of their children. Many finally obtain release only by agreeing to wear an uncomfortable electronic monitor—a “shackle”—that tracks their movements as if they were wildlife and requires them to be connected to an outlet for hours each day. The government euphemistically touts these devices as a humane “alternative to detention.” But it fixes them onto the ankles of mothers who should not be detained to begin with.
I left Dilley alongside a mother and her daughter who had just been released after two-and-a-half months of detention there.
"What’s that smell?" the little girl asked when we were outside. I took in a whiff of dirt and open Texas countryside.
"It’s the smell of freedom," her mother laughed.
But it has not come quickly enough for most families. Thousands of children who have no business being behind bars, and the women who have brought them to safety, deserve our protection and their chance to seek asylum on our shores. It is time now, more urgently than ever, to end family detention.
Adriana Lafaille is a staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts. She volunteered with the CARA Pro Bono Project in Dilley, Texas, from August 16-21, 2015, helping provide representation to detained mothers and children in bond and credible-fear proceedings.