photoLet me begin with this: We, as lawyers, have to be careful not to let our emotions cloud judgment. But I must say my trip to Karnes Detention Center this past weekend brought to the forefront of my consciousness a number of strong emotions which cannot be ignored.

I saw there the faces of detained mothers and their children. I heard their stories. It is simply disgraceful that our government is detaining them.

I have been an attorney now for over 15 years. I have represented men and women in detention. But detaining children and their mothers is wrong.  Everyone we saw (over 40 families) had no criminal background and all had some claim to credible or reasonable fear of persecution. It is a tragedy that the government would detain these mothers and children under the misguided assumption that they represent a threat to our “national security.”

I was at Karnes as part of a joint project with AILA, Akin Gump, Arnold and Porter, Tahirih, the University of Houston Law Center, and others. I saw many children with persistent cough, complaining of lack of medical treatment, lack of good food, and general conditions at the facility run by GEO Group.

While there, I was able to get an ICE official to review the medical case of a 3 year-old girl who had asthma. I was told by the mother that she could not convince the GEO staff to give her medication to treat her daughter’s condition. When she went to “Medical” to seek treatment she was told (and many mothers were told) to have the kids “drink water.” I bought the little girl some cookies and she smiled and she stood when I left the room. When I went to shake the mother’s hand, I almost missed the fact that the little girl stood too and extended her hand, waiting to shake my hand too. A sweet child, a desperate mother, and I felt I could help. I took her mother’s case and our clinic will represent them in immigration court.

To ICE’s credit the official I spoke with personally accompanied the woman and her sick child with asthma to “Medical” the next day so that he could intercede and make sure she got the medication she desperately needed. I applaud this ICE supervisor but he is one among many. ICE isn’t running these facilities, GEO is running these facilities. And GEO is a private company, seemingly out to make as much money as possible. We were told by detained mothers that the children sometimes get spoiled food beyond the date of expiration. It is simply not acceptable to mistreat these mothers and their children, to deny necessary medical assistance or give them spoiled food. It is not acceptable to detain them at all.

I call upon all AILA Attorneys (and in fact all attorneys) in Texas to travel to Karnes, Artesia and all these facilities, and see what is happening. Connect with Akin Gump, Tahirih, and/or AILA, get a list of detainees and check on them. Find out what their concerns are. Find out if they are getting medical attention. If they are not, contact ICE. File a G28 (representation form) and represent them at least with ICE to make sure they are getting their medication and their kids are getting nourishment. If you are able, then represent them in a bond or an individual hearing if they have possible relief. Most (although not all) had cases for asylum as either gang-based or domestic violence-based particular social group claims. They don’t deserve to be jailed.

I want to close with the story of a six year-old girl who sat in the play area in the corner of the room in which we were seeing people. My students and a supervising fellow were playing with her and talking to her, trying to cheer her up. I walked over and she looked very sad. She was trying to smile in response to questions but she was having a hard time of it. She was trying to interact, but I could see she was very unhappy. I learned from my students it was her birthday. We bought her a small bag of vanilla-creme cookies from the vending machine and that was her “present” for her birthday. She took it. Later I came back and saw it was unopened. We were told none of the children eat their cookies right away, as they are saving them to share with their mother.  How different from my kids, I thought. How sad.

I am angry and disheartened. Angry at an immigration system and an administration that purports to be for immigration reform and human rights while jailing these families. Disheartened because in these children’s faces I see my own children’s faces. This just isn’t what our country is all about. And I’m committed to doing what I can to help, and I hope you will too.

Written by Geoffrey A. Hoffman, Clinical Assoc. Professor, Director-UHLC Immigration Clinic, AILA Member and Karnes Volunteer


If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at–we are looking for more as the work continues and we could really use your help.

If you aren’t able to come help in person, consider donating at And thank you!

To watch videos of the volunteers at Artesia and elsewhere sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.