shutterstock_210118552“Don’t mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself.” Leviticus 19.33-34

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Madeleine Albright

I met Carmen, a 36-year-old indigenous Guatemalan woman, at the detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, in September 2014, months after she fled her native country out of fear for her life and safety. She was held in detention with her 4-year-old daughter, Lupe, who was unable to walk or wear a shoe because of a congenital clubfoot.

Carmen made the agonizing decision to separate Lupe from her twin sister and to leave her two other young daughters behind after her fear and desolation led her to contemplate suicide. She fled Guatemala because she was targeted for beatings, kidnapping and rape owing to her outspoken belief in her right to study, work and be free from violence. Carmen’s father beat her throughout her childhood and well into adulthood, with one of those beatings resulting in a permanent injury to her eye. Her eldest daughter was conceived of rape, and the father of Carmen’s younger children also threatened her life on numerous occasions.

My experience at Artesia and what I witnessed there shocked my conscience. Women were herded around like animals. Children were listless and sickened with hacking coughs. One child had suffered from diarrhea for eighteen days. It seemed that ICE did not deem any medical issue, no matter how severe, sufficient for a grant of humanitarian release. Case in point: I prepared a request for release on behalf of Carmen and Lupe based on Lupe’s condition. Her clubfoot was alarmingly red and irritated. The other children were repeatedly stepping on and kicking it, resulting in no fewer than six trips to the infirmary. A generous local surgeon had offered to operate on Lupe’s foot free of charge, and I offered to represent Carmen at her future immigration hearings. Five days after my request for release was received by ICE, the request was summarily denied with a statement that my client and her child were receiving adequate medical care in detention.

Rightly or wrongly, I am especially confounded by the lack of compassion expressed by female government employees, who have been complicit in harming the women and children detained after fleeing horrific abuses in Central America and seeking asylum at our shores.

I question how judges continue to hear these cases and bear witness to what is happening to these women without rising up in protest. Likewise, I am disturbed by the fact that the government trial attorneys routinely fight the release of women who have established a credible fear of returning to their home countries. Carmen testified that her eldest daughter was conceived by rape. She described being repeatedly kidnapped, beaten and brutally raped by a man who vocalized his anger that Carmen, as a woman in her twenties, was not married and was attending school. A psychologist testified that Carmen had been sexually abused and suffered from PTSD as a result. Yet the government attorney fought tooth and nail to send Carmen back to her abuser. On cross-examination, she asked whether Carmen’s abuser had tried to reach her since she left Guatemala. Carmen testified that one of her daughters who remained in Guatemala told her that he had approached her in a car and demanded that she get in, and that she was frightened of his intentions. The attorney asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm: “Are you telling me that you have a problem with your daughter’s father speaking with his own child?”

Two expert witnesses also testified at Carmen’s hearing regarding the failure of the Guatemalan government to protect women from domestic violence and the inability of an indigenous Guatemalan woman to safely relocate within Guatemala. The Immigration Judge found that “outspoken, educated indigenous Guatemalan women who defy the social norms of their community,” constitutes a cognizable social group. The court further found that Carmen suffered past persecution and has a well-founded fear of future persecution based on both her political opinion promoting women’s rights and her membership in the aforementioned social group. On July 15, 2015, the Immigration Judge granted asylum to Carmen. In the meantime, Lupe had surgery on her clubfoot and is now able to walk without assistance. She looks forward to being reunited with her three sisters.

In June, while waiting for the decision in Carmen’s case, I made a trip to the family detention center at Dilley, Texas. There I found more children with hacking coughs, many more women who were desperate and seeking help, and another isolated detention center where, outside of the small CARA Family Detention Pro Bono project staff, who are on the ground full time to help the women and children detained through the complex legal proceedings, the only attorneys helping these women were those who were able to pay the airfare, rental car and hotel out of their own pockets. I was struck by the contrast between the huge amount of taxpayer money pouring into detaining these women and children and the complete lack of resources the women have at their disposal to present their cases, a literal matter of life and death.

When I traveled from the detention center to Washington, DC, for the AILA annual conference, I was dismayed to hear the keynote speech delivered by a White House official. She made a vague and ridiculous remark that “terrible things happen to good people,” as if the Obama administration has not played an active role in detaining women and children with credible asylum claims. She then asked the audience of approximately 3,000 immigration lawyers to offer a better alternative to family detention. Since the goal of family detention is allegedly to ensure that the women appear for their future immigration hearings, a better idea would be to take a tiny fraction of the resources the administration is putting toward detention and set up a legal program so that every woman crossing the border has adequate legal representation. Studies show that 98 percent of asylum seekers with attorneys show up for their hearings.

What I have observed, time and again, is the re-victimization of these women at the hands of those in positions of power over them. A special place in hell, indeed.

Written by CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer Sheila T. Starkey Hahn


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.