During the contentious presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s immigration platform included a promise to end the detention of immigrant families, while President-elect Donald Trump has never specifically addressed the issue of family detention at all. Instead, Trump’s website broadly states that anyone who “illegally crosses the border will be detained until they are removed out of our country.” And given Trump’s other pronouncements about immigration—including his vows to ban the admission of Muslims, deport millions, repeal DACA, and build a wall along our southern border—it seems safe to assume that family detention will not only continue but could potentially expand in the Trump Administration. So with this in mind, allow me to share just a few of the stories I have heard from detained women about why they made the difficult choice to flee to the United States with their children. I know I’m preaching to the choir in this forum, but we must remember that in addition to the big-picture reasons why family detention is bad policy, the personal stories of women and babies in jail make it crystal clear how wrong it is.

In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security erected a makeshift detention camp for immigrant families in Artesia, New Mexico, in response to the “surge” of Central Americans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border that year. I volunteered there as a pro bono attorney during what turned out to be the last week the facility was in operation, in December 2014. The weekend before my cohort of volunteer lawyers arrived, most of the women and children had been clandestinely transferred to a new family detention center in Karnes, Texas. The women left behind were frantic, and those with whom I spoke to prepare them for their bond hearings told terrible stories of why they had been forced to flee from their countries: domestic violence, rape, murder, extortion, death threats, forced recruitment of sons into gangs, girls who were tapped to be gang members’ “girlfriends” under threat of death, among other unspeakable horrors. They also, uniformly, told of authorities who were unwilling or unable to protect them.

I never imagined that two years later our government would still be operating detention camps for asylum seekers.  As it happened, it also took me that long before I was emotionally ready to volunteer again. In October 2016, I joined 16 of my Fragomen colleagues who traveled from three different offices to spend a week at the family detention facility in Dilley, Texas. Though the faces had changed, the stories were remarkably similar to what I had heard two years earlier. Women told stories of their small businesses being bled dry by demands for payment of renta (extortion payments) or impuestos de guerra (war taxes) by local gangs who were at war with each other. We heard of forced gang recruitment, horrific domestic violence, rape, mutilation, murder of family members, death threats. We learned about towns that had been quiet and safe until criminal gangs moved in and took over. We heard the women’s desperation as they explained that there was nowhere safe in their small Central American countries, because the criminal gangs were everywhere.

Most of all, we heard of police who either looked the other way, or who were themselves colluding with the gangs. Time and time again, when we advised the women that they would have to explain to an Asylum Officer not only why they, specifically, were targeted, but why they couldn’t rely on the police to protect them, the women either cried, sighed or both. “You can call the police but they don’t do anything,” they would say. “Or if they come, you disappear or your family finds your dead body the next day.” I even spoke with one woman who had been a police officer in her country, and who had thus felt safe filing a police report when gang members started to threaten her. But her report was to no avail, and in fact the threats got more serious until she had no choice but to flee to save herself and her children. Even she felt unprotected by the very authorities to whom she had sworn loyalty.

These good people had lives, businesses, families, and homes that they had no wish to abandon. Fleeing your country with little more than the clothes on your back is not a step anyone takes lightly, especially with children in tow. Women and children who make the difficult journey to our border asking for protection do not deserve to be held in prison-like conditions.

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States makes it more important than ever for immigrant activists and lawyers to work to end family detention, and to ensure that so long as it exists, detained families are not denied access to counsel and due process. I encourage others to volunteer with the CARA Project. It is an experience that will change your life, and you might very well save the lives of others in the process.

Written by Careen Shannon, AILA Member and CARA Volunteer

How can you help?

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 Project page – we could really use your help.

To watch videos of 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.