Recently, McKayla Eskilson, Campaign Assistant for the Immigration Justice Campaign, a joint initiative between AILA and the American Immigration Council to help detained immigrants get a fair day in court, volunteered for a week at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, a Justice Campaign site in partnership with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. Karen Lucas, Director of the Justice Campaign, asked McKayla about her experience.

What does a typical day “On the Ground” at Dilley look like?

Monday through Friday, from roughly 7:45am until they’re kicked out at 8:00pm, the “On the Ground” (OTG) staff and volunteers with the Dilley Pro Bono Project are hard at work inside the family detention facility. Client intakes and initial asylum screening (the “Credible Fear Interview” or CFI) preps begin as early as 8:00am and continue steadily throughout the day, staffed by volunteer lawyers and supported by legal assistants, social workers, and interpreters each week to help with the massive amount of work that needs to be completed every day to ensure every detained mother and child has access to basic due process.

Detained mothers and their children come to the visitation trailer on site in the facility, operated by private prison company CoreCivic, where the pro bono project is stationed. The mothers often show up before the staff is allowed in and anxiously wait to be called up for intake or a prep. Although mid-December in South Texas isn’t particularly cold, most of the women and children arrive to the visitation trailer in their winter jackets, hats, and gloves, and wear them for the entirety of their visit. To say the trailer is “chilly” is an understatement. At times, the frigid air inside the trailer makes it difficult to concentrate, and it’s no wonder so many mothers and their children are sick. One CoreCivic Residential Supervisor (read: Guard) even began wearing glasses to try and ward off pink eye from the children.

What type of clients did you work with during your week at Dilley?

I met with several women and listened to their personal accounts of domestic violence, sexual abuse, gang persecution, extortion, and forced labor to help them prepare for their CFIs. These are the first step in their asylum claims. It is never comfortable to be forced to share very personal details about terrible situations with a stranger, but each of these women have to do so, sometimes multiple times. And it is the details that may mean the difference between safety or deportation.

Winning asylum in the United States is no easy feat. Your experience of persecution must fit into at least one of a few very specific parameters. Although every woman I spoke with had experienced clear violence and persecution, the asylum officers who interview the mothers to determine whether they have “credible fear” are issuing more and more negative determinations. In the week I spent at Dilley, six families were deported out of the facility. Not six criminals. Not six “bad hombres.” Not six foreigners here to steal our jobs. Six refugee mothers and their children were denied basic protection in the U.S. And while the team mourned those losses, the work had to be continued to keep others from that same fate.

And so I sat with some clients for hours, asking them to repeat their stories of trauma multiple times, and trying to glean from those terrible life experiences what stood out as the most compelling so an asylum officer would truly understand the severity of their claims. As difficult as it was to hear so many accounts of abuse over and over, I can’t fathom what it must be like to be the story teller.

What would you tell potential volunteers?

The Dilley Pro Bono Project OTG staff are phenomenal and work with efficiency, attention to detail, and compassion for their clients. But helping these families is something they cannot do alone. Their work to make sure every family has access to due process is only possible with strong groups of committed volunteers. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as physically and mentally exhausted as I was during and after a week at Dilley, but I’ve also never lived a week with more meaning. At a time when immigration lawyers and advocates are faced with what seems like endless obstacles, it’s important that we remember why we do this work: it is our belief in justice and fairness as well as our shared values of welcome and protection that drive our commitment to fight for due process. If you are able to volunteer in Dilley, trust me, you won’t regret it.

The Justice Campaign is partnering with the Dilley Pro Bono Project in the hopes of ramping up volunteer numbers so that more women and children can be heard, defended, and lifted out of dire situations. Find out how you can help at