Thursday, January 17, 2019

South Texas Family Detention Center volunteers speak in Washington, IA

By Roger Farmer
First printed for JPOG (Just Peace Outreach Group) near Washington, IA.  Reprinted with permission

On Sunday afternoon, December 23, 2018, a small group gathered in the offices of Jacqueline Arreola LLC, Independent Insurance Agent, Washington, Iowa, to hear a report from Joseph Lyons and Crystal Anderson about their work as volunteer translator and social worker at the South Texas Family Residential Center operated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). 
The South Texas Family Residential Center is located at 300 El Rancho Way, Dilley, TX, a small rural town about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio, and is the largest of the nation’s three immigration detention centers for families, housing up to 2,400 people, all women and children (men with children go elsewhere).  Below is information about the Texas Family Residential Center followed a report of the experiences of Joseph and Crystal.  These comments were written by Roger Farmer.   

South Texas Family Residential Center
This privately run facility, operated by Nashville, Tenn.-based CoreCivic under contract for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is the largest of its kind in the nation, and began service during a heavy influx of undocumented immigrants from Central America in 2014 and 2015.  It cost more than $260 million to open and now has annual operating costs of about $156 million.

The facility receives about 110 new immigrants daily, most of them detained after crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley.  This facility only accepts mothers with children.  No men are held here; about 630 fathers and sons are housed in another lockup in rural Karnes County, about 100 miles east of Dilley.  In a recent week, the Dilley facility had immigrant families from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Armenia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Belize, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Romania.  The Family Residential Center is intended as a short-stay facility, given an Obama-era court settlement that prohibits families from being held in detention longer than 20 days.  In the current fiscal year (2018), 25,000 immigrants have come through its doors.
Agency ground rules prevent reporters from interviewing immigrants being held at the facility.  The facility itself was previously used as housing for workers in the oil fields of south Texas.   

Click on this link to see an aerial view of the Texas Family Residential Center:,-99.2021845,822m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x865e0a127671fc75:0x6c4005e542b89dfa!8m2!3d28.6579377!4d-99.2004464

Dilley Pro Bono Project
Legal services on site are provided by the Dilley Pro Bono Project, a consortium of nongovernmental agencies and volunteers.  The Dilley Pro Bono Project began in 2015 when the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, collectively known as CARA, joined forces in response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) significant expansion of its family detention capacity. 

According to its website, the Dilley Pro Bono Project is recruiting volunteers indefinitely.  The greatest need is for attorneys, law students, and paralegals with interest and experience in asylum work. The project also encourages and appreciates the participation of return volunteers from both Artesia (a previous detention location) and Dilley, with their vast experience working in a family detention setting. To provide effective assistance to clients and to have a meaningful experience, volunteers must be either fluent in Spanish or consider collaborating with an interpreter. Compassion, endurance, resilience, flexibility, and the commitment to ending the insidious practice of family detention are required for every volunteer.

Translation and interpretation services can be provided via telephone and speaker phone in some cases, so persons fluent in Spanish can provide these services at a distance. 

Financial donations are also always needed and accepted to support this work. 

For more information, see: 
American Immigration Lawyers Association - Dilley Pro Bono Project

How to volunteer at Dilley           

Report from Dilley volunteers Joseph Lyons and Crystal Anderson 
            Joseph grew up in Washington, Iowa, and now works as a journalist in Spain.  Crystal is a social worker and has relatives here in Washington.  Both are fluent in Spanish and spent a week at different times volunteering in Dilley. 
            Joseph was a volunteer during Thanksgiving week along with about thirty other volunteers.  The volunteers were supported by 3 full time attorneys and four paralegal assistants.  The goal of the volunteers was to interview as many women as possible in preparation for their "credible fear" interview.  This interview with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents is what determines whether the family will be considered for refugee status or whether they will be immediately deported.  Most women are not familiar with the legal requirement to qualify for refugee status.  The key is whether they have experienced fear, persecution, or threat in their home country.  This might include persecution because of race, religion, or other social group, gang violence, domestic abuse, or threats against children.  Key details to support the asylum claim include the lack of police response, threats to or death of relatives, neighborhood harassment, extortion threats, and other violent encounters.  A threat of violence is a clear reason for an asylum claim even the refugee herself considers such violence to be common or "normal" in her home country or neighborhood.  
            If the ICE officer determines that there is "credible fear," then the woman is usually released to "sponsors" with an ankle bracelet and a court order to report at future time for a court hearing.  "Sponsors" provide travel and living arrangements until the court date occurs.  "Sponsors" are usually relatives but could be other interested persons.  Detainees often need to call the court each week until their court date is set.  Some detainees receive work permits six months after their asylum application is accepted.    
            Detainees arriving at Dilley are often ill after their long journey and being initially held for several days in the "icebox," an unheated temporary detention facility.   Children often had colds or the flu.  Nevertheless, most detainees are hopeful and looking forward to a better future.  85% of detainees arriving at Dilley are released within a week. 
            The legal consultation center is a double wide, double length trailer with interview rooms along each side.  Dilley volunteers provide both group instruction about interview preparation and also individual consultation in the interview rooms.  There is some school and child care, but Joseph and Crystal didn't see many children on the playground. 
            Asylum applications can be accepted regardless of how the person entered the USA.  While entering at an official "Port of Entry" is preferable, the entry process seems to be intentionally slow in order to discourage persons from arriving.  Consequently, many persons simply cross the river and surrender to ICE agents. 
            Our time together closed with refreshments and further conversation among those present.  Everyone was concerned about the continuing human rights violations that the Family Detention Centers represent. 

Roger Farmer grew up on a farm in central Illinois and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.  He also spent two years as a math teacher in the Peace Corps in Belize, Central America.

I attended the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois, and later Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.  I retired after almost ten years as pastor of the Sugar Creek Mennonite Church in Wayland, Iowa.  For the last several years, I have helped organize JPOG, an informal group which focuses on issues of peace and justice from a Christian point of view.  I am concerned about how to translate the words of Jesus into everyday life, particularly with immigrants and other persons in need as well as bringing a more peaceful atmosphere in personal relationships.

Related items of interest:  
Official ICE Family Detention Center webpage:

Inside the country's largest immigrant detention center - a more positive view from a local newspaper

ICE dumps 200 immigrants at El Paso bus station with no advance notice, no money or resources

2nd child dies while detained by ICE

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