The Awful Things I Saw and Heard at the Border
On a recent trip to a south Texas detention center, I saw the rawest, saddest expressions of despair you could imagine. If you’re a parent, you have to care about this.
As the nation turns its attention from the Supreme Court nomination battle to the midterm elections, national media coverage is dominated by political theater in the fight for control of Congress. In the meantime, a wholly avoidable and self-made humanitarian crisis persists at our border; a crisis deepened by a cruel and vengeful policy that uses the lives of children as bargaining chits in the absence of coherent immigration policy.
There are few things in life that impact a parent like the cries of children. We are conditioned, as a species, to act swiftly to come to the aid of children in duress. After spending a week at the South Texas Family Detention Center in Dilley, Texas, with the Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP), I am calling on all parents to act—because there are thousands of children crying, nearly constantly, for our help.
DPBP works with volunteer attorneys and has two main goals: to provide legal support to asylum seekers so they can get out of the center, and to end the practice of detaining families, and especially, children. The work is intense—constant legal triage—and the stakes could not be higher.
In each moment, I saw, and felt, the maximum extremes of the human condition. I saw impossible despair mingled with fervent hope. I witnessed the most raw and deep pain as I sat with sobbing mothers asking me how they could live knowing that, because they could only afford passage for one child, they had traded the life of one of their children for another.
I felt their relief when the calls back home were answered and they knew the children they left behind were safe, but I could only imagine their heartbreak as they wondered aloud whether they would ever hug them again. I heard the most desperate pleas for help, the most passionate cries to save their babies from the certain death that awaited them upon deportation.
I saw people who yearned to live in a place where they could be safe, and free, and happy. Most of all I saw parents who love their children just as I do mine; who would do anything for their child, including making a dangerous journey across foreign lands, staying in the perrera (dog pound, cages where initial processing occurs) and hielera (ice box, temporary detention facilities near the border) and then detention for the hope of a safer life. I saw lawyers working past the point of exhaustion, running between cases for the chance to help one more woman tell her story.
I saw DPBP staff devote themselves completely to helping the most vulnerable. I heard children crying. I can’t recall a single moment in the center without hearing the cries of so many children. This was the worst part, the constant reminder of the suffering of children and the inability to do anything in the moment to make it better (we were not permitted to comfort or play with the children). Mostly I saw suffering. So much suffering.
Most of the families in detention are fleeing persistent, horrific domestic abuse, gang violence, police corruption, political persecution, or a combination thereof. Nearly all face certain death if deported. Rarely is lawyers’ work a matter of life or death. The gravity of this work is that it nearly always is—a negative finding leads to deportation and a return to their perpetrator, so for these mothers and their children, it is usually a death sentence.
The detention center, little more than a low security prison, is horrid. Illness spreads like wildfire, and many children can’t eat due to their emotional distress. There is no counseling, and insufficient assistance for the mothers.Our treatment of these families at the border is inexcusable. Our response to children fleeing certain death, after a long, terrifying journey, is to separate them from their parents for processing (yes, we still separate temporarily, and yes, even the little ones), put them in cages, then put them in jail.
I feel so much shame for the abuse we are inflicting on so many children who have already survived so much pain. This treatment is meant to punish and make an example. It is inhumane and un-American and violates the tenets of every religion. It is as far from Matthew 25 as one can imagine (“When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?”).
There were some good moments. Telling moms they would be leaving detention was amazing. Calling loved ones in other centers and witnessing the relief and joy that they had made it was incredible. The look of confidence and hope on the faces of women who felt heard and validated—often for the first time in their lives—and ready to tell their stories made all of the work worth it.
I will know soon how many women with whom I worked received a positive finding and will leave detention to continue their asylum claims in court. I will enter their “alien” numbers in the system, but I will see their faces and the faces of their children, as well as the imagined faces in my head of their described families. I will never forget them, and I will never stop praying for them.
Parents: The children are crying. It is time to act to end this terrible practice of detaining children seeking asylum on our shores. Vote for candidates who oppose family detention. Join the immigration justice campaign and visit AILA.org. Volunteer. The lives of thousands of children depend on it.