“I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT COUNTRY I WAS IN.”
This Blog was written by my friend Jeffra Flaitz who accompanied me to Dilley for Xmas 2016
After postponing my trip to Dilley for a few days to tend to my cat Suave’s health emergency, I finally leave for the airport at 4:00 am in order to make my early morning flight. I’m just getting over a bad cold, and I’ve got a cracked or bruised rib thanks to the packed suitcase on the floor that I tripped over in the dark the night before.
Waiting for me outside of baggage claim at the San Antonio airport is Mayra Calo, my immigration mentor, and her support chihuahua Oliver. I’m bleary-eyed, sore, and hungry, so when Mayra suggests we find some breakfast tacos, I’m all in. We are so lucky! Spikey-haired Guy Fiere—of Dives, Drive-Ins, and Diners fame—suddenly appears on a weather-worn banner outside an unassuming little … well, dive … called Taco Taco. “Best Tacos in the Nation” reads the sign. I feel like this is a good omen for the whole trip.
We scarf down the fluffiest soft tacos I’ve ever met, and are on our way to Dilley, 80 miles south of San Antonio and plunked in the middle of nowhere. Flat, dry, wind-swept—this is the desert (to me, anyway). It’s no accident that the immigration family detention center is located here. In fact, most of the 28 such facilities in the nation are situated in remote areas far from urban centers. The center is actually a boon to Dilley, a community of some 4,000 souls, as it has brought jobs. Oil fracking of the area’s shale fields brought jobs, too, but along with them came environmental and health concerns. The dumping of fracking waste has contaminated the water supply. We are told not to drink the water. Don’t even brush your teeth with it. (So what’s in the big orange plastic water cooler in the consulting room at the detention center? Moms and their kiddos are filling the white paper cones and quenching their thirst with something everyone else is cautioned to avoid.)
Now we’re settling in to the tidy trailer where we’ll be hanging our hats for the next 7 days. Mayra has thoughtfully prepared several hearty crockpot meals to sustain our team during the week. There are like two … er … restaurants (?) in town, plus a couple of familiar fast-food joints, but … Enough said.
By 5:30 pm that Sunday evening about 20 volunteers and staff are assembled in a bare room at an efficiency-type lodge. Some kind of repair is going on. You have to step over a ladder lying on the floor. Somebody has put together a simple meal for us—a potato-based stew, rolls, bottled water. Hey, it’s a non-profit organization. It’s the thought that counts.
One by one, each of the 4 OTG (On The Ground) staff presents his/her piece of the orientation. They’re all young people—late 20s, early 30s—so articulate, so grounded. They speak in complete, rapid-fire sentences powered by a single breath so that the conclusion of each speech descends into incoherent muttering—and so on and so forth—as their lungs contract.
My colleagues are younger than me by decades. There is a big contingent of law students from Lewis & Clark, several attorneys working for non-profits and others running solo practitioner offices. There is a doctor among us and a doctoral student. A few of the volunteers have been to Dilley before. This is Mayra’s 4th stint. The majority of the volunteers are women. Most speak Spanish, but are not Latino.
The next morning we search for an empty space in the crowded, dusty parking lot in front of the detention center. Clusters of pre-fab trailers, enough to house 2000 beds, are corralled behind a chain-link fence. I can’t remember seeing barbed wire. In the registration trailer, our bags are manually inspected, then put through the scanner along with our coats and hats. We walk through another scanner, and then submit to a wand scan. Our names are checked against a list of authorized visitors. We trade our driver’s license for a visitor badge, sign in, and head for the CARA trailer (where we sign in again).
Our consulting room is a large open space with small round tables and plastic chairs that are placed in various configurations throughout the day, depending on our needs. A couple of side offices house printers and scanners, file cabinets, office supplies, and snacks for the CARA volunteers. Seven or 8 other small offices are used for private consultations between clients and attorneys. At the back of the room, 4 rows of chairs accommodate groups of about 30-40 detainees seeking free legal assistance. A small playroom for kids is set up nearby for watching videos and playing with a few toys. While the volunteer attorneys may accompany clients to interviews and hearings with an asylum officer in an adjacent building, the rest of us aren’t allowed to see any other part of the facility. No cell phones, no pictures, no personal email.
The day’s schedule of group sessions (called “charlas” or “chats”) is displayed on a white board in the middle of the room. They run every hour and a half from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm. During my visit, there were “intake” charlas, “credible fear interview” charlas, and “release” charlas. Volunteers whose Spanish is strong enough sign up to take responsibility for leading one or more charlas during the day. Others will assist clients with completing paperwork or they will work behind-the-scenes to enter client updates into the LawLab database. Attorneys meet one-on-one with each client to prepare for the Credible Fear Interview.
Our first day, one of the volunteers whose Spanish is in the early stages of development but whose childcare skills were abundant discovered the unsupervised playroom, and began to use his talents to support the kids and relieve the mothers. Suddenly this guy rushes out of the playroom carrying a limp unconscious toddler. “She’s unresponsive!” “What happened? Is she breathing? Honey, wake up. Where is her mother? Call 9-1-1.” The doctor in our group is right there. Get some sugar. Lay her down. The girl soon revives and begins to wail. The next thing we know, two aides from the clinic enter the room. I overhear the tense conversation between them and our group’s senior attorney. They cancelled the 9-1-1 call before examining the child or assessing the situation. Our senior attorney is firm. Today I learn that the people who work in the clinic are not doctors or nurses or physician’s assistants or LPNs or CNAs. I learn more about how the families’ illnesses are treated (rather, not treated)—a cough drop for a fever. The next day we’re told that we cannot spend time in the playroom. “But what would have happened if X hadn’t been in the playroom yesterday?” “That was a mistake.” For the remainder of the week, supervision of the playroom is spotty. I guess they didn’t learn from their mistake. Willful disregard.
In the evening, the OTG staff and volunteers regroup in the lobby of the motel. We each take a turn reflecting on the day. The young man who rescued the toddler is close to tears as he wonders aloud at the callousness of the detention center staff. To paraphrase him: “I couldn’t believe this was happening. I mean, this is America. For a minute, I didn’t know what country I was in.”