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Ned Juri-Martinez and other University of San Francisco law students spent a week volunteering with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project at the South Texas Family “Residential” Center in Dilley, Texas. Left to Right: Gabriela Mendez, Kaitlin Talley, Juri-Martinez, University of San Francisco law students. (Photo Credit: Juri-Martinez)

Washington, D.C. 6 July 2018 — In October 2015, the University of San Francisco School of Law, Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, spent a week volunteering with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project at the South Texas Family “Residential” Center in Dilley, Texas.

A residence it was not, a prison it absolutely was in every way possible. This experience was an emotional roller coaster of frustration, anger, pain, and shock – not just a shock to bear witness to the sheer level of human suffering that every individual in the facility has experienced – but above all, the shock I felt when the sobering reality of the situation hit me.

In an effort to send a message to scores of people who may have been considering fleeing endemic violence in their countries of origin during the summer of 2014, the Obama Administration made it a policy to detain asylum seeking mothers and children upon availing themselves to the “protection” of U.S. authorities once on U.S. soil. I emphasize that these are “people” that we are talking about, a reality that many seem to be in denial of.

Prior to going to Dilley, I had heard of the policy of family detention before. However, only until I was in Dilley did I realize the sheer magnitude of the situation and the gross injustice that it is. Since I returned, I have managed to share my experience with many friends and family members. To my surprise, I found that, by and large, nobody is even aware of the mere existence of these facilities and the policies that are being implemented right under our noses.

The level of trauma and needless re-traumatization at the hands of U.S. authorities that the women of Dilley have experienced was immediately evident upon meeting the first group, first thing Monday morning. Personally, I have worked in some capacity with asylum seekers for many years now, and so I am no stranger to the gut wrenching stories that leads someone to make the impossible choice to flee their countries, often times their families, and all they have ever known in seeking basic protections.

However, Dilley was very different for one primary reason. The trauma of the women and children in Dilley is still very fresh. Most of the women and children I met in Dilley have experienced horrific incidences of violence at the hands of gangs that are ravishing Central America. Although these scenarios are not foreign to me, the clients I have met while working in the Bay Area have at least had some time to grieve and somewhat process before I ever make contact with them. As recent arrivals, many of the women in Dilley that I met endured the “triggering” incident of persecution that drove them to flee their countries very recently, often times within the last month.

As vulnerable migrants, many endured exacerbating incidents of violence in a third-party country while en route to the United States. Upon arriving to the United States, they were not welcomed with the promise of freedom and basic right to life, but were immediately vilified, interrogated, placed into cold jail cells notoriously known as hieleras (“freezers”), and then incarcerated into family “residential” centers where there have been documented abuses spanning from sexual abuse, lack of basic healthcare, widespread reports of being denied access to legal counsel, and the gross inexistence of mental healthcare.

Each meeting was emotionally charged and presented a challenge between assessing a legal claim for asylum and often merely holding a safe space and a friendly ear for these women to process their experiences. Playing this role can be a huge challenge for a legal team without the skills to thoroughly provide for a population grappling with extreme cases of grief and trauma. Nevertheless, we did the best we could, and in listening to their individual stories, it was clear to me that these women are much more than victims, but are heroes in their own right. Despite what they have lived and what they continue to suffer in U.S. detention, their fighting spirit endures.

After my first few moments in the South Texas Family Residential Center, it quickly sank in that I was in a center for incarcerated women and child asylum seekers. Security at the facility is tight. We were unable to pass through security without checks of our belongings and our person. We were not allowed to move beyond the visitation trailer, and prohibited from giving the “inmates” food or candy. This environment for vulnerable asylum seekers is really as crazy as it sounds, yet that is the policy our government has chosen to promote in response to a humanitarian crisis.

Further solidifying the outrageousness of family detention is the needless re-traumatization that is occurring by means of our government’s coercive and abusive tactics to try to get many of the women to give up on their claims and allow for their swift removal back to their countries of origin.

Many women spoke of being treated like “animals” and being forced to stay in cold, overcrowded cells. I was told that these freezing cells have concrete floors that the women and children are forced to sleep on without a mat or anything with which to cover themselves. One woman spoke of agents screaming and using verbally abusive tactics to try and get the women to sign for their removal or untruthfully admit to not having a fear of being returned to their country of origin. Many women spoke of a lack of sufficient food and water while being held in the helieras, often times for over a day and multiple days in some cases. Understandably, many of the women become desperate while in detention, and panic attacks were an all too familiar occurrence that I witnessed throughout the week.

Following my experience in Dilley, my hope is that there is greater awareness about the daily reality of asylum seeking women and children in detention in the South Texas Family Residential Center and various other facilities across the country. There are serious human rights concerns occurring on U.S. soil right under our noses. At some point, we as a nation have to ask ourselves: Are we – in good conscious – OK with a policy of incarcerating and penalizing refuge seeking survivors and their children?

By Ned Juri-Martinez 
Second-Year Law Student
University of San Francisco 

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