shutterstock_70664173I spent a week volunteering as an immigration lawyer at the ICE family detention center in Dilley, Texas. It was a singular experience and I wanted to share some of what I learned.

The detention center in Dilley opened after the 2014 “surge” in immigrants from Central America crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without papers. Under U.S. law, immigrants who express a fear of returning to their home country can apply for asylum or other forms of protection. The women in Dilley generally have expressed such a fear of returning to their countries, and thus the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project team works in the detention center to help prepare the women for what is called a credible fear interview with the U.S. government. If an asylum officer determines after a woman’s credible fear interview that there is a significant possibility that the woman would succeed in her claim for asylum protection, the government should release her (and her children) so that she can apply for asylum. The mothers are mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, with a few from Mexico. Many women from Guatemala may speak Spanish as a second language, with their first language being perhaps Akateko, Q’anjob’al, Mam, or another indigenous language.

The end result of most of the on-the-ground work done with the CARA project is preparing the women in Dilley (and sometimes their children) for the credible fear interview. It was important to speak patiently with the women so that they were comfortable enough to open up about their lives. We needed the women to trust us and take our advice. Nearly all women we saw actually did pass their credible fear interviews and eventually were or likely would be released (so that they could apply for asylum before an immigration judge). If released, women were usually released on an ankle monitor. Some however were deemed by the government not to have established a credible fear.  If they did not pass their credible fear interview, they would be allowed to contest that finding to an immigration judge. I was told that as a result of this review process and because of the legal counsel that CARA has offered, only on very rare occasions is someone deported. When I left, there were about 2,000 detained mothers and children.

Like the other volunteers, I was in Dilley from Sunday through Saturday. With the high number of credible fear interviews (CFI) scheduled, it’s impossible for volunteers to attend every single one. However, we are able to help prep many; on Thursday, a 23-year-old woman from Guatemala came to see me for her CFI preparation – I was able to find another case from California where the court had given asylum to a person in a similar situation – we printed up the case and highlighted the relevant portions for her to show the asylum officer.

Another woman, who failed her credible fear interview, had been subject to attacks and threats from multiple members of her family, and from her former partner’s family. Her brother had also been murdered by gangs. As a result, her social worker had diagnosed her with General Anxiety Disorder – she had a very difficult time opening up and sharing what she had been through. When I helped her at her immigration court hearing (in a separate court location in Dilley, with a judge from Miami appearing on video screen), we presented to the court her social worker’s report. She was also given another chance by the immigration judge to explain the other violence and threats to which she had been subjected. As a result, the judge agreed with us that she had a credible fear and vacated the asylum officer’s decision, and she was later released from Dilley to live with her sister in the U.S. and pursue her claim for protection in a U.S. immigration court.

Come Friday evening we bid farewell for probably the last time to the detention center. At the exit, I realized that I had forgotten my pass in the CARA volunteer room, for which I had traded in my driver’s license in the morning. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) staff, the private prison contractor running the Dilley facility, gave us a hard time about that – they wouldn’t let me have my license back, even though someone from CARA would be coming in the following morning and could simply return my pass then. The CCA employees simply would not let us have my ID back, they said because they didn’t know if it would be against policy. Fortunately, another CARA volunteer who would be staying longer traded in his own driver’s license for mine. Experiencing this logistical hurdle personally, as an attorney, gave me tremendous respect for the CARA staff who deal with providing services in this difficult environment, with constantly changing rules, on a daily basis.

Finally we were out and went to get food. Fellow CARA volunteers had brought a mother and her young son along, soon after they had been released. We all enjoyed the moment – freedom for everyone from what I had come to see as a toxic environment.

There’s a lot that is wrong with Dilley. Certainly the health considerations for detainees in Dilley are far from satisfactory. No one is dying, but if my own physical condition after five days is any indication, the CCA facility fosters debilitation and docility, perhaps deliberately. (I had become feverish and weak, though I very rarely get sick.) Women reported to us that they had waited five hours for their children to be seen by a doctor or nurse, and were told only to drink water.

Having now had some time to reflect on my experience in Dilley, I appreciate my freedom and health more. Whatever one’s views on those seeking refuge, it’s hard not to have at least an admiration for their courage and tenacity. They come from a world that is far removed from our comfortable existence in the U.S.

Written by Joseph Lavetsky, AILA Member and CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer


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 this fall, particularly the week of October 11 and after.

If you would like to donate funds please see the American Immigration Council’s page dedicated to the fundraising effort.

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.