Doing Time in Dilley

Prathiba Desai September 15, 2017

This blog tells the true story of families seeking asylum in the United States- families that have gone through horrors not meant to be experienced, especially by children.  Please be aware that some of the content may be considered graphic by some readers.

In December 2016, I spent a week serving as a pro bono attorney at the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC), a family detention center for women and children located in Dilley, Texas.  Volunteers are organized through the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a collective created by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC), the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).  These organizations joined together in response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s expanding practice of detaining families seeking asylum at the United States and Mexican border.

The water tower stands sentinal over Dilley.

What exactly is a “family detention center?”  Well, it’s basically a cleaned-up term used to hide what these places really are: prisons.  The United States government is currently incarcerating women and children fleeing violence in their home countries (mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) and who are asking for asylum at our borders.  Yes, children – some as young as just a few months old.

I met with a number of these women and children during my time at the STFRC.  One young girl’s story has stayed with me, months after I met with her.  My colleague was interviewing her mother, and I sat down to keep her pre-teen daughter company.  As we sat coloring with crayons, she turned to me and asked if I wanted to know why she came to America.  I told her I didn’t know why but if she wanted to tell me, she could.  She proceeded to tell me about how her uncle had been raping her for years and that when she told her mother about it, everything got worse.  Her mother called the police, who didn’t do anything, and her family turned on her for dragging others into their private affairs.  Her own family threatened her with violence, and her mother made the decision that in order for them to be safe, they had to flee the country.  This child does not belong in a prison while she and her mother rightfully seek asylum under US laws.  She needs to be counseled and offered medical services, not incarcerated.

After telling her story, the young girl turned to me and asked if I could play her some songs on my laptop.  She was really worried and nervous about their hearing the next day with the asylum officer and what questions they might ask her.  I tried to ease her mind and said she could answer any questions the way that she had just explained it to me.

Prathiba in Dilley, TX

After that, we sat and watched Disney music videos to take her mind off things until her mother was done preparing.  Before she got up to leave, she turned to me and asked if the Empire State Building was as tall as she had seen in pictures.  She said she was hoping to see for herself.  She is a kid, one who has been through a lot, but a kid nonetheless.

Why are children being imprisoned?  Mostly because the companies who run these private prisons are earning millions of dollars a year in revenue for each of the 2,400 beds they fill at the STFRC.

In even more appalling news, in May 2017, Texas lawmakers voted to advance a bill that would license family detention centers as child care providers.  This is despite a 2016 court ruling where a judge held that the STFRC did not meet the minimum requirements to care for children.  The GEO Group, the  private prison company that runs the other Texas family detention center, Karnes, lobbied Texas lawmakers to introduce the bill, a bill that would earn them exponentially more revenue and allow them to remain open and hold children in these facilities for even longer.

Beyond the disturbing reality where a family jail would be licensed by the state as a childcare provider – this is a dangerous precedent.  From someone who has been to the STRFC, seen and spoken to the children and women being held there – there is no way that they should be allowed to pretend they are childcare providers.  Almost all of the children there have severe diarrhea, congestion and hacking coughs.  Their coughs were so forceful it sounded like they would vomit at any moment.  When mothers tried to seek medical attention, they were told to give their children honey or a throat lozenge.  When I was there, the medical staff did not even speak Spanish, so most mothers did not know what medicines were being given to their children.  Children who were running around playing would come back from the infirmary and just pass out asleep from the pills given to them.  One day, a child in the “daycare” room was found by a CARA volunteer passed out and nonresponsive, with no STFRC staff member in the room with the children.  And if that weren’t enough, volunteers were all warned to not drink the tap water in Dilley because it has been contaminated by nearby fracking.  Yet, the STFRC staff filled water dispensers directly from the tap for the women and children being detained.

Family Detention Centers are inhumane, not a solution.  With the Trump administration planning to expand detention,these human rights abuses need to be brought to light and these centers need to be closed.

The experience of volunteering in Dilley has reaffirmed my dedication to fighting for immigrant rights, and I already have plans to return.  If you are interested in volunteering or learning more, please visit AILA’s website.

Prathiba joined a long line of advocates volunteering in Dilley, and hopes to go back this year.