DSC_0231I haven’t heard immigration lawyers called heroes many times before (though I know a lot who are). And I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I’ve ever heard it from a sitting member of Congress. But that’s what happened Thursday when Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) said that AILA member Dree Collopy and the other Artesia volunteer lawyers were his heroes. Congressman O’Rourke shares a cause that drives AILA: ending family detention.

In Washington, D.C., there is momentum building to accomplish something AILA members have known with every fiber of their being needs to happen. We’ve known family detention was wrong from the first days in Artesia when the only thing stopping the rapid deportation of children and their mothers back to danger seemed to be the pro bono attorneys arguing for fundamental rights to be upheld. After months in the trenches at Artesia, the battle shifted to the new facility at Dilley and the expansions of Karnes and Berks. On each battlefield, the volunteer attorneys, law students, paralegals, legal assistants, and translators were joined by mental health professionals, religious leaders, and others – volunteering their time to fight injustice no matter what barren piece of the landscape into which the Administration expanded its detention facilities.

AILA members outside of D.C. may sometimes feel like they are one step removed from the action, that the conversations here are different from those taking place anywhere else in the nation. Well, the conversation is changing here, too.

Yesterday’s press conference was a big deal. Representatives Lofgren, Gutierrez, and Roybal-Allard are long-time leading voices on immigration and detention reform. They called out the Administration for their callous disregard for the health and well-being of asylum seeking refugees. Rep. Gutierrez made it clear that his public outrage comes after having met with both the White House and DHS and gotten no result; he also committed to visiting detention facilities before Father’s Day.  The Members of Congress were joined by the incredibly brave Maria Rosa Lopez, a young mother who was detained for months and finally freed, along with her son, due to the pro bono efforts of AILA member and Director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Texas Denise Gilman. Speaking from her heart, Maria shared her story, a story of the trauma and hardship that detention inflicts on the most vulnerable and the damage it did to her son, and to her own psyche.

Another AILA member, Dree Collopy, who knows a thing or two about asylum law (she wrote the book on it—literally), talked about the conditions she witnessed in her time volunteering with the family detention pro bono project. Through her words, we saw the sick children, the deteriorating health of both mothers and their kids, and the concerted effort by the Administration to rip away the chance for due process and deport as rapidly as possible, with the refrain “This must end now.”

You might ask why a press conference is important – it’s a few minutes in the grand scheme of things. But it is a vital few minutes, and combined with the press outreach, the op-eds, the editorials, the videos, and the tweets, a ripple can turn into a tidal wave.

And the wave is not just on the House side. On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid – the leader of the Democrats in that chamber – called explicitly for an end to family detention. Opposition to family detention is becoming a gateway issue in this election cycle, too. A certain presidential contender made it part of her big immigration policy speech – and she got it exactly right: the detention of children and other vulnerable people puts their mental and physical health at risk. A few days later, another rumored presidential hopeful – former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley – came out publicly against family detention.

The Administration thought they had a way to tamp down this issue last week when they announced their plans to “enhance oversight and accountability” in family detention – you saw how well that went over with AILA and other stakeholders. The smackdown from congressional members, from NGOs, and from the public was loud and instantaneous. We need to build on that momentum.

We need all of you to help keep the tidal wave rolling. If you can’t volunteer in the trenches at one of the detention centers, make your voice heard by telling your congressional members exactly why they need to stand up for these children and mothers. More and more members of Congress speaking publicly creates more and more pressure on the President. Open their eyes to what is happening and the stain that family detention is on our country’s grand history of offering safety and security to the most vulnerable. Tell your family, your friends, your church – shout it from the rooftops that you have joined this battle. There’s no ignoring it any longer, there’s something happening here.

Written by Crystal Williams, AILA Executive Director


If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at mtaqui@aila.org – we could really use your help.

To watch videos of the volunteers 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.