What I Saw at the Dilley, Texas, Immigrant Detention Center

What I Saw at the Dilley, Texas, Immigrant Detention Center

What I Saw at the Dilley, Texas, Immigrant Detention Center

The stories I heard from the women and children trapped in Trump’s willfully cruel immigration system will stay with me forever.


When I first started to write this, I was crying. I was flying back from Dilley, Texas, the site of the largest family-detention center in the United States. It is 75 miles from the Texas-Mexico border. The center is actually a prison—an internment camp. I see the faces and hear the voices of the women and children I just left.

Nearly every woman I saw seeking asylum came from the northern triangle of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They had come, primarily, not to save their own lives, not even to save themselves from hopeless poverty or endless physical and sexual abuse, but to save their daughters and sons. The mothers believed their children, who were facing sexual abuse, rape, violence, and possibly murder in their native countries, would be safer in the United States. In most cases the events that caused them to leave, a month or so before I saw them, were attempted or successful attacks by predators, primarily against their daughters, either made by gangs, the government, members of their own families, or unknown men.

Journalists and politicians are often barred from coming in to the detention centers. Occasionally, the center owners will permit guided visits. They do all they can to mislead. I and others had the benefit of being there day after day.

I spent one week at Dilley, leaving early in February, as a volunteer lawyer to help these families with their asylum applications. Nearly every one of the almost 500 people that I saw in the detention center was sick. There were, at the end of my visit, 15 infants in the center—two children had previously died in government custody, though not in the Dilley facility. The children and their mothers, most of whom had crossed the Rio Grande ten days before, near McAllen, Texas, often bucking strong currents and sand holes, where the water level hovered around their knees, looked for border patrol agents so they could be taken into custody and request asylum.

The agents take them in their wet clothes, at first, to the “hielera,” the “icebox,” a refrigerated building, a large processing center, where they had to try to sleep on the concrete floor or sit on concrete benches under mylar blankets, prodded by agents all night and day, deliberately kept awake. Bathroom breaks are frequently not granted, or not in time, so both women and children often soil themselves.

The prison-like detention was an attempt to persuade these immigrants to turn back before they even reached a credible-fear interview with an asylum officer. It was also a message to those who were still trying to cross the border.

Mothers told me two bologna sandwiches for four days, for a mother and two children, was standard. Sometimes they missed food for a day. Sickness was not treated. The original rules for any confinement was limited to 12 hours, but now it is routine for the families to be kept four or five days, and sometimes a week.

After the Hielera, they went to the “perrera,” or “doghouse,” a place where families were put in cages, cyclone fencing between them as though they were animals. But at least the chain link cages—dog kennels, really—were warmer, the mothers told me.

The legal-visitation trailer was jammed when I arrived at 7:30 in the morning, with 50 mothers and children. According to the Dilley Pro Bono Project, about 450 families a week were being processed at that time. There is a miasma; the often-foul air smells of desperation.

When I first walked into the detention center I saw the first 30 of the asylum seekers. Their faces exhibited shock. I saw fear in every face I saw. I had spent several months, two years ago, in the countries where they came from, and that helped me in some small way to understand their unspoken determination. For their children they were going to endure as much as they could. They knew there was no turning back.

I was helping to prepare the mothers for their initial interviews that hopefully could then lead to a full asylum hearing. But first I had to prepare my clients, and perhaps their children, for intense questioning by the asylum officer, a member of the Department of Homeland Security, who we had to persuade, through the credible-fear interview, that my client had a credible fear of persecution if she was deported—if she did, that might qualify her for asylum.

Before my first interview a mother spoke to me, seated in the large central area with her son, and asked me if I might have shoelaces. I looked down at her and her 12-year-old son’s feet and saw the huge sneakers on the boy, nearly falling off his feet. “They are mine,” she said. “He lost his crossing the river. He almost drowned.” She had found some other sneakers. They were too small for her. No shoelaces on either one of them. After they left Dilley, they were going to be on their way to Chicago, where a church group had sponsored them. Several bus connections and days to get there. “They say it’s cold,” said the boy. “Do they have sweaters there?” asked the mother… I imagined them struggling, with their bad sneakers coming off, the Chicago winter greeting them.

We spoke a while. She told me in an offhand way that her other younger son had drowned 10 days ago, as they were coming over the river. She repressed all but one tear. Her son was impassive.

When I met with the women before we went to the credible-fear interview I tried to find out if they met the legal requirements for asylum. Most of my clients did not know why I was asking the questions I was asking, and most of them could not bear to discuss the topics I had to pursue.

Nearly all the women I spoke with told me of the gangs, more powerful than their country’s government or its police, preying on anyone who earned an income.

S, whose full name I am not using because of her pending asylum claim, the mother of two children, had been supporting herself by getting eggs from a farmer, putting them in the basket of a bicycle, and going around the neighborhood selling them. Her father did the same. First, the gangs demanded the equivalent of a dollar a day, then more, and then even more. Finally, the mother and father said they could not pay. Her father was killed that day and she was told if she did not pay, her children would be killed. She left Honduras that night.

Another thin woman in her 20s, with her toddler daughter, said she had pancreatic cancer. She could not get treatment in her Central American country. She wanted to reach a sponsor in Minnesota, so her daughter could start a life, “I want to see my daughter grow up.” I nodded my head. She and I both knew she had less than a year to live.

E, a woman of about 30 with two young daughters whose father, G, was in Chicago, was told by the gangs to get money from G, who had abandoned her years prior along with their two small children. She could not. A jailed member of the gang emailed and phoned G from jail in Honduras to say his children would be killed unless he came up with the money. E had no idea how they had located him. G said he could not pay; he did not have money. The gang member then told G and E that two men would come to see her.

E did not believe it. Two men then came to her home and stood silently across the street for two days making sure she noticed them. They said nothing to her. At night, she took her children to a town 60 miles away to stay with her mother. The gang member then called her mother’s home from jail. E immediately took her children and started the long journey to this country. As she detailed the way the children’s father had abused her, she looked away from me as she spoke. The only time she made eye contact with me was when she saw that I had tears too.

E had left her home in mid-December 2018 with her two daughters and made the 1,500-mile trek to the Texas border.

The rules at Dilley were clear: We are not allowed to comfort or hug any child though many are sick and crying. If I did not follow the rules, not only I but all the lawyers there and the legal project that brought us together, could be evicted. I am only allowed to shake the mother’s hand. If she breaks down and cries or walks out of the room because she can’t continue, I am not allowed to touch her.

In one interview, a 2-year-old boy sucking on a bottle of water and screaming hysterically made my interview with his mother and older sister impossible, dragging a metal chair around our small meeting room, trying to get me to leave so he could be alone with his mother. I think he saw every question I asked caused her pain. He, I think, required a response from me. There was nothing I could do.

I was not allowed to give any food or drink other than paper cups of water to the very hungry detainees who saw me leaving the center both for breakfast and dinner. No toys, books or crayons could be given to the dozens of children in the waiting area. Separated from their mothers, the children had to be seated and wait for hours in front of a TV screen high on the wall. Some sat crying.

The detention center in Dilley is run by CoreCivic, a company that contributed $250,000 to President Trump’s inauguration. Another owner of detention centers, GEO, gave $225,000 to a Trump PAC prior to the election and an additional $250,000 to the inauguration. CoreCivic, a flourishing business, has a $1 billion contract with Homeland Security. Lost in all this talk of detention centers is the enormous profit that goes to these corporate Trump supporters who benefit from jailing immigrant mothers and children.

Unlike the Dilley facility, many of the other detention centers are revamped, big empty structures that were never meant to house people. One was an enormous, empty Walmart. South West Key, another owner of detention centers in Texas received more than $1.3 billion in federal grants and contracts in the past 8 years. The more immigrants that President Trump stacks up at the border the more need there is for bigger detention centers.

Follow the money: There is no reason for these immigrants to be held other than racism and for the profit of the detention center owners.

Last week JP Morgan Chase, one of the funders of CoreCivic, who owns Dilley, said they would no longer fund CoreCivic. Previously, demonstrators in the summer of 2018 stood outside the home of Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan, demanding that his company stop funding these camps—and nine months later, JPMorgan did.

President Trump’s first step to stop migrants from seeking asylum was increasing the difficulty of anyone’s getting past the credible-fear interview. On March 7, 2019, shortly after I left Texas, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that immigration authorities can no longer immediately deport asylum seekers who fail these initial credible-fear screenings, potentially allowing thousands of migrants a year to get a second chance for asylum in the United States.

At its “historical core,” said the 48-page unanimous opinion written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, “the writ of habeas corpus has served as a means of reviewing the legality of executive detention, and it is in that context that its protections have been strongest.”

The opinion extends constitutional habeas-corpus guarantees to those applying for asylum at the border and provides that they can seek a hearing in the federal courts before being summarily deported—though the court did not specify what standards must be used to evaluate such petitions. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling conflicts with an earlier opinion in the Third Circuit. The government has not yet appealed the Ninth Circuit decision. The Roberts Supreme Court will decide, but not until later this year or 2020. I am not optimistic.

In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, an estimated 7,200 migrants were denied permission to apply for asylum after their credible-fear interviews and were placed in expedited-deportation proceedings. An analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that in June 2018, 85 percent of initial asylum reviews found that the asylum seeker did not have a credible fear of persecution. That was twice the number from the previous year.

In my decades as a lawyer, the son of an illegal Jewish immigrant fleeing the pogroms of Poland, I have seen governments, ours and others, manhandle innocent victims. I saw the South African police brutalize demonstrators, including mothers with children. I saw Southerners in the civil-rights movement attack marchers. I saw Cesar Chavez’s members get beaten and shot at.

But what I saw in Dilley will stay with me forever. There are few more helpless than the woman and children in Dilley. When my father came through Boston in 1926 neither he nor the children on the boat were ever treated this way.

The women and the children I met are not the rapists and murderers that Trump speaks of.

The experiences of the women and children evoked the careful, calculated and precise torture described in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” Kafka describes the efficacy and errors of the executioner’s machine of torture as the needles cut deeply into his victim’s body. Here at the detention center we don’t hear the screams or see the blood spurting out of the mothers and children—we do not know of the deep traumas being inflicted on their already traumatized bodies. I saw the silent screams in their eyes.

We’ve certainly come a long way in the 136 years since Emma Lazarus penned those famous words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… ” The less-known preceding stanza reads:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome…

President Trump’s mother of exiles now offers the icebox and the cages of the doghouse as her welcome to some of the globe’s most anguished cast offs.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Jamie Dimon is chairman and CEO of  JPMorgan, not president and CEO. And additional sourcing was added to back up the reference to the number of families arriving each week at Dilley.

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