To Save a Life—by Ahavya Lauren Deutsch*

Photo by Teo Siguenza
Photo by Teo Siguenza

So, how to describe Dilley? It is a small town, whose main industry is prison. Very few people live there, but Corrections Officers on contract come for 3 and 4 months stints to work in the correctional facilities in and around town, generating a surprising number of motels in the area. About 1.5 hours from San Antonio, it has a number of small, folksy restaurants (The ‘Swamp Shack’ and it’s vaunted ‘crawdad coffee’ come to mind), and one large General store.

How to describe the South Texas Family Residential Facility? A place where desperate, hopeless, women are incarcerated, despite having committed no crime, or the minor regulatory infraction of entering the country outside of a border checkpoint.

Every single woman I spoke to (approximately 30 or so) described a terrifying journey to the US, including rape and other sexual assault, violence, robbery, exhaustion, and near starvation. They are incarcerated because they want to live here, and have risked their lives to get here. One woman said to me, “America is the only country on earth where people follow the law.” They are literally dying to live here (one woman attempted suicide a few days before we arrived). Every woman has at least one child, many have 2 or more. This means that many of them left children behind in their home countries. One woman burst into tears when I asked her if she had other children, because she hadn’t seen her infant son in two months. The refugees take the children they think will survive the journey, and who they can afford to pay the Coyote to traffic. They came here because staying in their home countries was a death sentence. Gang violence is unchecked in Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. The Gangs frequently have so much control over the police departments that the police act as informants for the gangs. Many women described being threatened with sexual slavery for themselves or their children. All describe intimidation and harassment, and all of them had friends and family who had been murdered by gangs for non-compliance.

Let me take a moment to talk about the children. They are cute, they are outgoing and playful. They sometimes seem like any other children, and you’d never know they’d journeyed through hell to be here. Many of them have rotting black teeth. Baby teeth are a low health priority for mothers who are in constant fear for their lives, since baby teeth will be replaced with adult teeth, and there’s time enough for dental hygiene later. Children are resilient. They play, they run laughingly up to the corrections officers, they were very excited about the toys we surreptiously brought with us (we were not technically allowed to bring toys into the facility, since the corrections corporation maintained they ‘provided for all the needs’ of the detainees, so we would do things like wear extra plastic bracelets that we could then give away, bring fun pens, etc..). Many of them were clinically underweight. Not because they weren’t offered food, but because they wouldn’t eat it. The food being served was unfamiliar to them, and many of the women I met told me their children were losing dangerous amounts of weight because their kids weren’t used to the food and wouldn’t eat it. Not being an expert, I think food is a way for children to exercise control over some tiny part of their lives, that were otherwise completely out of their hands.

I think that the mothers (I don’t say adults, because many of the mothers were teenagers) also felt the despair of having no control over their lives. They all felt that deportation was a death sentence, so they are simply in a holding pattern, with no control over the outcome, praying that they and their children aren’t sent back to die by someone who either simply didn’t believe them, didn’t understand them, or didn’t feel that they met the technical requirements for asylum – a process they did not understand, and that had been poorly or not at all explained to them.

The work that we were able to do was to assist mothers with their Credible Fear Interviews – a preliminary interview wherein an asylum officer determines whether the woman has a credible fear of serious physical harm upon return to her country of origin BECAUSE of her membership in a race, religion or particular social group.

If a woman is determined to have a credible fear, she is then allowed to apply for asylum, and a determination is made about whether she must remain in detention pending the outcome of her application, or whether a bond may be posted for her release. A bond is frequently set, but they are often higher than the applicants can pay – $15,000 or so. Because of this, the other work that our project did was bond redetermination hearings – this is a hearing to ask an immigration judge to reduce the amount of the bond based upon the merits of the asylum application, the means of the applicant, and the likelihood that the applicant will return to court for the rest of the process and not flee. The week I was there we were very successful in lowering the bond amounts, allowing applicants to be released pending the outcome of their applications. Statistically, applicants are far more likely to succeed in their applications if they are out during the pendency, since they can do more to prepare for their asylum hearings (contact home, obtain documentation, etc.), so this was important.

Groups of attorneys go for week long periods, and there is a web-based client database with case notes that we all use to hand off our cases to each other, hoping to maintain continuity of representation. The week I was there, the facility was preparing to transfer to a new location across the highway, that could house up to 2000 detainees (the facility at the time held 300). The facility was a series of prefabricated huts located on rocks and dirt and surrounded by barbed wire. Relatively clean, and with play areas for the children, but certainly a grim place to be unable to leave. In order to enter, you had to apply to be on a list, have photo id and go through a thorough search (we weren’t allowed to bring in a jar of jam because of the glass). No pictures are allowed inside the facility, and we couldn’t bring our cell phones.

The guarding had been outsourced to the Corrections Corporation of America, so all the guards wore burgundy polo shirts and khakis, and carried walkie talkies and some night sticks. They were mostly pretty nice, and Spanish/English bilingual, though very concerned about following protocol – we had to be escorted EVERYWHERE, and the surge protector we brought in had to be assigned it’s own guard (our surge protector Protector). Due to fracking they advise you not to drink the water, but they don’t provide alternatives, so most of us did, rather than carting in enough bottled water for a 10+ hour day. We would arrive at 8am or so, and leave around 6pm, and then have a dinner meeting from 7-9 or 10 pm or so to compare notes and strategize. Pretty grueling, but we felt we were able to do good work.

Regardless of the media and politics, the asylum process takes place. Its things like the volunteer efforts that languish when the media moves on to the next story. Continuing to tell these stories and connect them to our own lives keeps the plight of these families in our consciousness, and hopefully inspires more contributions and volunteering – having an attorney is invaluable in the asylum process. Invaluable.

As a Jew I felt that I had to pay forward the kindness that righteous gentiles showed to Jewish children and families when they were fleeing persecution in the early part of the last century. Bureaucracy can quite literally kill vulnerable populations like refugees, and someone has to be willing to stand up and put our humanity before our politics. As a lawyer, it’s the only way I know how to save a life.

*Ahavya Lauren Deutsch is a lawyer in Rochester NY and one of the founders of Jewish Women for Child Refugees (JWCR). She is the Executive Director of the Perinatal Network of Monroe County, a not for profit that strives to improve health and birth outcomes for vulnerable mothers and babies.

To make Donations
Please mail any donations for sending lawyers to assist mothers and children refugees to The Legal Aid Society of Rochester, Attn: Bill Davis at 1 West Main Street, Suite 800, Rochester NY 14614. Any checks should say “JWCR” on them in the memo line, and we will ensure they receive a receipt for tax purposes.