I volunteered a week in Dilley, Texas, at the South Texas Family Residential Center to give back to the immigrant community and the most vulnerable. While I was there, I also learned more about asylum law, which has made me a better lawyer. Here’s what I saw and learned:

Often, when a nuclear family (dad, mom, and children) comes to the U.S. asking for asylum, the government separates the males over 18 and keeps the females together with their children. The father may be sent to a detention center where those seeking asylum are held, along with people who have immigration violations, some of whom are convicted criminals as well. The government sends the mother and minors to a family detention center.

Even though the family detention center in Dilley does not look like a traditional adult jail, with bars on the windows and barbed wire along the perimeter, it still operates like a prison. There was a sign at the door warning pregnant women not to enter as there was a chicken pox outbreak; however, that week they had nine pregnant women detained in that center. While the stated written policy is to let pregnant women go to their final destination within the U.S. and allow them to fight their immigration case outside of detention, ICE clearly was not following that policy

The stories of these women and children are horrifying.  They have seen and experienced atrocities and the crimes they are victims of are beyond imagination. I was listening in on a “credible fear” interview (CFI) feeling outraged that corrupt police officers in other countries would commit crimes instead of protecting the lives of their fellow citizens. I felt hatred towards the cowardly police officers who would victimize others instead of fighting to end corruption. So many lives could be saved if the government and its officials worked for the people instead of gangs and extortionists.

I spent the week working on behalf of these families. To be honest, at times, I felt like a doctor in a disaster zone. But my ordinary life, and most likely the ordinary lives of other AILA members and volunteers, is privileged. I believe that we have the duty to help others and volunteer our time. I want to use my skills to bring relief to those who are hurting.

It was amazing to listen to the incredible stories of these women and children.  They showed such courage and resilience.  I am certain that given the chance, they could contribute so much to our nation, through small local changes, or great breakthroughs and innovations.  Which of them would be a doctor or engineer? Who would be a nurse or a teacher? So many could make the lives of others better.  True grit is a common denominator for successful people, and let me tell you, among the families I was able to help, I saw children who showed serious grit.

I learned so much during my week volunteering. I learned that humans are resilient and that when faced with adversity, people show the best in themselves.  I learned that this project changes lives, because getting proper legal advice make a big difference in the success of their asylum claims. These mothers and children deserve a chance to make a meaningful claim to protection under our laws. As an attorney, I was able to help some of them get that chance. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience and like medical staff who volunteer  after a hurricane or earthquake, lawyers can literally save a life by helping women and their children fleeing violence find protection and build a future, safe from harm.

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.