shutterstock_167007272Paralegal Laura Tovar recently volunteered in Dilley and Karnes with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. The experience changed her life and she wanted to share what she learned:

What did you see and how did it make you feel?

They all had the same look, eyes sunken with dark rings, hungry, and sleep deprived women with listless skinny children. As a paralegal who works in Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto behind a desk, I returned changed from a week volunteering at the Dilley and Karnes City Detention Centers in Texas. In the midst of my normal life, I’m still haunted by the visions and stories of women suffering from domestic violence or escaping from their country in order to protect their children from gang recruitment.

At the detention facility I spent my time preparing women for bond hearings and credible fear interviews.  I thought that the shortage of legal help might be the biggest problem I saw but no, the lack of medical care was what broke my heart.

The women looked very tired. There seemed something odd about their children and it hit me, they were not playing as normal children should.  While prepping a woman from El Salvador for her bond hearing, she asked where she could get diapers for her five year old. He would pee in his pants whenever he stood up. I asked if she had taken him to the doctor. Yes, was the reply, but the doctor told them the boy’s incontinence was a sign of stress and to drink water.

What other families did you work with?

I also met a Guatemalan mother who spoke minimum Spanish, also fleeing from domestic violence. She carried her seven year old boy in her arms though he was half her size. I asked if he was sleeping. She said he was awake but did not want to open his eyes or walk. She said he had been acting like that for over a week. I asked the boy if he wanted some milk and cookies. He opened his eyes and nod his head yes and closed his eyes again.  I bribed him to walk with me but then he started crying. I had to bring the milk and cookies to him while he listened to his mother recall the dramatic stories of domestic abuse. This boy, so traumatized and no longer capable of trusting anyone around him kept shutting his eyes to hide from the world around him.

Later that afternoon, I met a Salvadoran woman with her three year old son. The boy was smiling but did not want to play nor draw with the rest of the kids. I looked closely into his eyes and he had a pink eye.  I asked the women if she had gone to the doctor. She said they waited six hours to see a doctor and the boy was told to drink water. That morning they returned to line up for a doctor visit again because the child’s condition was getting worse. They waited another five hours, forcing them to miss lunch service, so they had decided to come meet with us about their immigration case and possibly catch the next meal service.

What do you want to see changed?

When I was there, about 2,000 mothers and children were incarcerated – some staying 3 to 6 months or even more.  These families come to the United States to seek safety not prosecution. No woman or child deserves to be treated so inhumanely. They wait for hours to see a doctor who will only tell them to drink more water. This experience reinforced for me that my life mission is to become an immigration attorney. I will keep the images of these sad, hungry, sick little kids close to my heart as I journey through law school because someday, I will represent many other families in court.  I only hope that the government stops jailing moms and kids long before then.


If you are an AILA member, law student, paralegal, or translator, 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.