shutterstock_147711227I wasn’t going to do it.  It was just crazy stupid.  We didn’t have the resources.  The hearing was in 20 hours, and that just wasn’t enough time to put a case together. And yet, knowing that there were life or death consequences, how could I tell the young mother and little boy sitting in front of me that they would have to face this trial on their own?

I first met Riva* and her 5 year-old, Eduardo* about two weeks before, during my second trip down to Dilley.  Riva, 24, is tiny and beautiful and impossibly brave.  Back in Honduras, the small Central American country which held the distinction of having the world’s highest murder rate, Riva worked as a bookkeeper.  Later, knowing what she had been through, I wondered how she managed her trusting smile.  Her five year-old was quiet and a little unsure, squirming in his seat.  She told me later that he didn’t understand what they had done wrong that they were “in jail.”

Once we had distracted Eduardo with a game, Riva handed me her papers.  After looking a dozens of files in the past weeks, I quickly picked out the bits that told me she had the awful, shocking facts that perversely make for a strong claim.  But after a few more pages my stomach clenched and I remember thinking this must be how doctors feel when they have to tell patients they have cancer:  You might die.  I might not be able to save you.

Riva was a “withholding only” case.  She and Eduardo were being detained without bond and worse yet, her case would be held to an almost impossible standard of proof.  Most difficult of all, we just didn’t have the volunteers to take on merits cases.  That meant she and her little boy would be forced to put up their own defense in what was literally a death penalty case, all while jailed in a for-profit prison in the dusty fracking country of South Texas.

Riva had tried to flee Honduras three times in less than a year.  A predator had been stalking her family and was alarmingly fixated on Riva.  After murdering her brother, the man had escaped prosecution and Honduran police claimed they had no record of his arrest despite a videotaped confession—a fact that wasn’t surprising given the country’s human rights record.  Riva’s nephew was found dead, shot multiple times, a “gift,” the predator said, to a sister who had dared challenge him over their brother’s murder.

The first time Riva made the dangerous journey north, she was caught by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and deported without a chance to apply for asylum after being held in inhumane conditions.  With her little boy playing at her side, Riva calmly detailed how CBP officials had confiscated her identity documents, then made her and the others place their shoes, outerwear and other personal effects into a large plastic container; a short time later, she saw an officer throw the entire collection into a dumpster.

Eventually, she and several dozen other dazed and exhausted migrants were brought to a processing center where they were corralled into a large open pen.  She told me it was filthy, with plastic toilets and human waste on the floor.  After several hours, an official called her to take her name, date of birth and country of origin, then locked her in a holding cell known as a “hielera” or “icebox” because of its frigid temperatures.  Riva told me that there were dozens of women and even more children in the room.  It was so crowded that not everyone could sit on the only “furniture” in the room—two concrete benches—at the same time.  There wasn’t any room to sleep, much less any bedding, and no way to clean up after their long ordeal.  When people resorted to lying on the floor, officers would bang on the door and threaten to kick people if they didn’t get up.

Riva told me how she kept politely and respectfully trying to get someone’s attention to explain her situation; instead, she was told to shut up and wait.  After a few days, she was taken from the hielera and interviewed by someone on a phone.  He asked her some basic questions—name, date and place of birth, parents names, who she knew in the United States, and whether she had any problems with the government or gangs in Honduras. Riva told him she was afraid to go back.  In response, he played a recording that told her she was being deported and could not come back to the United States for five years.  When the recording was over, she told the man again that she didn’t couldn’t to go back to Honduras, that she was afraid for herself and her son.  He simply repeated that she couldn’t come back to the US for five years and the interview was over.

A short time later, Riva was again pulled out of the crowded cell.  An officer said she was being deported and had to sign her paperwork.  She told him that she didn’t want to sign because she was afraid to go back to Honduras.  He told her he didn’t care and she had to sign anyway because she was going to be deported, no matter what.  When she refused, he got annoyed and told her she was going to sign the papers, or he would sign for her.  When it became clear she wouldn’t budge, he returned her to the hielera.

Over the course of the next several hours, two more officials pressured her to sign.  By now, they were visibly angry, even resorting to yelling at her through the door of the crowded hielera.  Others had also refused, but had been worn down and gave up after being yelled at and threatened by the officials.  Riva admitted she was scared and crying by then, but still refused to sign. Eventually, after about four days, she was transferred to another location where a different official told her she could sign some papers to be able to have her case reviewed.  It was a trick.  Soon thereafter she was shackled, hand and foot, and put on a bus.  Many of the women were crying, and the guards banged on the bus and yelled at them to stop.  The shackles weren’t removed until she was on a plane back to Honduras.

Riva tried twice more to flee Honduras.  On her next attempt, she was robbed and assaulted in Guatemala, and forced back.  Within a few months, the predator made a final visit and a chilling threat, barging into her home, telling her that he’d be back to deal with her.  Fearing imminent harm, she fled north with Eduardo and endured a horrifying journey, including being raped in Mexico.  This time, after being processed by CBP, the pair were put on a bus and found themselves jailed at the South Texas Family “Residential” Center.

The massive complex in Dilley, Texas is run on a for-profit basis by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).  CCA is paid approximately $350 a day, per person, to detain women and children (the average age is 6).  The company was awarded the contract without any competitive bidding, and CCA runs the place with relocated prison guards and others from the corrections industry.    They are having trouble staffing the center, with only a little over half the staff speaking any Spanish at all.   No one speaks any indigenous languages, such as Mam or Qu’iche.  The indigenous women are particularly isolated, bewildered and depressed.  Even we volunteers can only smile and try to communicate in simple Spanish, waiting days to arrange an interpreter.

CCA’s website lists “Residential Supervisor” as a “Hot Job Opening.”  In case that opportunity sounds like a great career move for a social worker, know that it’s listed under “Correctional Officer Jobs” and describes the duties as supervising detainees “in a correctional facility.” The only requirement to be a corrections officer—sorry “resident supervisor”—at the South Texas Family “Residential” Center is a high school diploma, GED or equivalent.  That’s it.  No Spanish, no experience working with children, education, social work or the like.  Compare this with a recent job opening for a maintenance worker at the same facility:  two years or experience required.  Funny, that job posting looks like it was filled in the last few days, but the listing for prison guards is still open:  must not be enough people who want to work as jailers over women and kids.

CCA’s PR materials say that the center’s mission is to provide “an open, safe environment with residential housing as well as educational opportunities for women and children who are awaiting their due process before immigration courts.”  Of course, a CCA executive explained it best when I questioned her about the arbitrary and restrictive visitation rules which seem to change nearly daily.  When I noted that the constraints seemed more appropriate to a jail than a “residential” facility, she said:  “But this is a jail. There just aren’t any cells.”  Without missing a beat, she suggested that I should deal with the facility’s prohibition on underwire bras by finding something I liked at JC Penney, as she had.

At that first meeting with Riva, I had the awful task of telling her that we couldn’t take her case.  After all, they were bringing in another 40-50 women and children every day, and the number of detainees had exploded from about 300 on my first trip down in late April to 1,200 as of last week.  Despite the growing outcry, ICE Director Sarah Saldana doubled down on the discredited policy.  Last week, 136 House members called for an end to family detention.  The government’s systems are failing.  Women are waiting two to four weeks to get screened for their asylum claims and nearly another month before they are told if their case can proceed or they will have to ask for review. They wait another week or two for a detention officer to assign a bond amount, almost all of which will be reviewed because they are too high, unnecessarily tying up the immigration court process.

Waiting for a bond hearing to be scheduled means another week or two.  Immigration Judges consistently assign minimal bonds for families that clearly are neither a flight risk nor danger to the community, but immigration prosecutors threaten to tie cases up in lengthy appeals when judges think even a minimal bond is not justified.  Detainees refer to their housing units “kennels” saying the guards treat them like dogs.  Women and children now must line up for hours for meals.  Medical Services has begun to resemble an overcrowded urgent care clinic, with detainees saying they wait at least an hour or even all day for attention.

We are an all-volunteer program, relying on a handful of legal workers each week to pay their own way to Dilley for a grueling round of 16-18 hour days.  The resources necessary to put on a single merits case meant that we wouldn’t be able to help dozens of women through the credible fear and bond process.  It was a soul-wrenching calculation to have to make, but Riva understood and graciously thanked us for all our work and, mostly, for just being there.  She collected Eduardo, and I jumped into another meeting with another young woman, fleeing another shocking, life-threatening situation, detained with another adorable, but confused child.  After an intense and rewarding week, I returned to my home and practice in Colorado.

To be continued…Read Part 2 of this blog post.

Written by Laura Lichter, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer

* Names changed for privacy.


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 – 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.