shutterstock_193122386Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is claiming victory in the transition of its family detention center model from Artesia, New Mexico to Dilley, Texas. On a working group tour of the Dilley detention center on January 13, 2015, ICE sang its own praises about all of the changes they had implemented after the shutdown of the Artesia facility and how great the permanent facility in Dilley will be once completed.

The detention facility they are lauding is expected to be the largest in United States history, reaching a capacity of 2,400 and a reported cost of nearly $300 per detainee per day.

Many of the most vulnerable who seek protection in the United States will end up imprisoned there for indefinite amounts of time. It is shameful that children as young as 18 months are being held there right now. It is wrenching that women who are victims of severe trauma and abuse are imprisoned there. But in many ways, the most tragic are the indigenous women from all over Guatemala who are likewise jailed without a clear indication of why they are there or what the process is for fighting their removal.

Fleeing for safety, they end up in a world of confusion and isolation. They arrive to the Dilley detention facility not yet understanding what has happened to them since they attempted to cross the border, and then remain detained for months in almost complete isolation.

They are isolated because when they arrive at Dilley, nearly all of them are oriented in Spanish instead of in their native language. That’s how detention begins for them. Despite the fact that most of them speak little to no Spanish or English, Spanish and English are all they hear. They are used to being marginalized and ignored and persecuted but you would think that in the United States we could do better.

They cannot communicate concerns or needs to facility employees, deportation officers, or others at the detention center. They cannot communicate with other women and children at the facility. They cannot communicate with immigration judges or asylum officers, and many are pushed through the process with no opportunity to tell their story, as indigenous language interpreters are few and far between.

Two weeks ago, I sat in on a pro se hearing, where an asylum seeker represents herself, at Dilley. A woman who speaks Quiche sat at the counsel table with only her daughter by her side, facing an immigration judge on the video screen. The daughter looked to be about 10 years old. They listened intently as the judge spoke to them, in Spanish. The daughter leaned in, trying desperately to understand what the judge was asking, while her mother sat uncomprehending, staring at the video screen. The immigration judge would ask questions and the little girl would tell her mother what to say in response. The immigration judge caught on to this issue after a few questions, and asked the mother what her preferred language is. She responded that she speaks Quiche, not Spanish. The immigration judge asked her if she understood what had happened so far. The mother repeated that she does not speak Spanish. The immigration judge explained that she would find a Quiche interpreter and would have another hearing. Neither mother nor daughter understood what the judge had said. After a few more attempts to explain what had happened, the immigration judge gave up. The mother and daughter stopped me as they left, seeking information. I attempted to explain to them what I had understood but they hadn’t, using one word at a time and miming with numbers and my hands, what the immigration judge had said. Two. Days. Quiche. Back here. I hope they understood, but how could I ever know?

This woman and her daughter are in removal proceedings. The U.S. government is trying to deport them. And they have no idea what is happening. When I tried to ask if the woman had spoken to a lawyer, she could not understand my question. It was the most heartbreaking thing I had ever witnessed, even after being in Artesia for more than five months.

ICE insists on detaining these women and children. Most are victims of severe violence in their home countries. They are completely isolated and cannot understand what is happening in their immigration cases. At the time we toured Dilley, with only 10% of its total expected capacity filled, there were eight indigenous language speakers and their children detained there, unable to understand what they need to do to be reunited with family members here in the United States.

The government contends that these women and children constitute a “national security threat” and must be detained. Surely this “national security threat” is not so great, when the women and children involved cannot even communicate with those around them. When they cannot even understand how to find an attorney, let alone work with one on their claims for protection. When they have absolutely no chance at getting due process when the decisions being made could mean life or death, asylum or removal.

ICE can brag about the virtues of Dilley as much as they want, but this facility is what it has always been: a gross political abuse designed to detain the most vulnerable of those seeking protection in the United States, with no regard for due process or human decency.

Written by Christina Brown, AILA Member and Lead Attorney for the AILA – Immigration Council Artesia Pro Bono Project


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.