Supervisory Attorney Giovanna Valdez Reflects on Her Week of Pro Bono Service with the CARA Project in Dilley, Texas in January 2016

In January of 2016, the Law Office of Robert D. Ahlgren sent two of its Associate Attorneys, Giovanna Valdez and Lindsay Wunrow, to volunteer through the CARA Project, in representing the detained women and children currently being held in Dilley, Texas.

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 (AILA), collectively known as CARA, have joined forces in response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) significant expansion of its family detention at the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) and the Karnes Residential Center.  The continued detention of families reflect the Obama administration’s ongoing persistence to preserve the flawed deterrence policy it began in June 2014 with the opening of a temporary family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico.

The detention of children and their mothers is not only inhumane, but incompatible with a fair and just legal process. The CARA project builds on the collective experiences of the partners by organizing and managing a robust pro bono legal services project to help the families detained in Dilley and Karnes.  CARA’s aim is twofold:  to ensure that detained children and their mothers receive competent, pro bono representation and to end the practice of family detention entirely by leading aggressive advocacy and litigation efforts to challenge unlawful asylum, detention, and deportation policies.

Currently there are approximately 900 mothers and their children detained in Dilley with the population steadily rising.  And, nearly all are seeking asylum.  With virtually no one on the ground to provide assistance and representation to these families, the partners of CARA are leading the pro bono effort in Dilley.  The CARA team in Dilley operates a non-traditional pro bono model of legal services that directly represents the mothers and children detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center located in Dilley, TX.  They organize volunteer teams for each week.  They ask volunteers to commit to a Sunday to Friday work schedule and to arrive Sunday evening for a mandatory on the ground orientation meeting.  After an exhilarating and exhausting week, the team leaves the following Saturday, and a new team arrives to take over the caseload and carry the work forward.

Examples of CARA’s work include:

  • Nearly 8,000 families had a CARA volunteer attorney to help them start the process of seeking asylum
  • Thousands of mothers were taught about their rights and obligations by CARA project staff and volunteers, empowering them to become advocates for themselves and their children.
  • More than 700 volunteers from all over the country – lawyers, paralegals, translators, social workers, medical professionals, teachers, and more – put their lives on hold for a week or more and traveled to Texas to help protect these families. Combined they donated more than $6.75 million in volunteer hours.
  • The CARA team encountered inadequate medical care for detained mothers and children; families who were emotionally traumatized by their detention; mothers who experienced coercion after being denied access to CARA project attorneys; and the lack of adequate interpreters and language-appropriate services for detained families who speak indigenous languages. CARA filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of the Inspector General to investigate.
  • Public outcry surrounding the lack of access to counsel afforded the vulnerable women and children targeted for removal by Immigration and Customs Enforcement whom the Obama Administration is rushing to deport.

This is the third team of attorneys that our office has sent down to the border to assist in this important pro bono project.

Here is Giovanna’s account of her volunteer experience:

Dilley, Texas is like many small rural Texas towns.  With a population of about 4,000, it is very limited in its resources for legal counsel.  I traveled to Dilley Texas in January of 2016 for a week.  The plan was to volunteer for that week at the South Texas Family Residential Center located in Dilley, Texas.

“Residential Center,” is not what this place was when we pulled up.  I believe “Residential Center” is a deceitful way to describe what the facility really is- it is a jail.  The facility is made up of multiple trailers within a fenced in area.  The entire facility is made up of trailers for multiple purposes such as for court, credible fear interviews, and to meet with visitors, like us.  The rules are similar to those of jail and those detained there are treated as inmates, even though they are referred to as “residents.”

The CARA Project had set up an orientation before our week of volunteering began. It seemed straight forward, like something I could handle without a problem.  The CARA project was baffled by the low number of families that were being admitted in the week preceding our arrival.  This was the first time this had happened, so they were scared that something was going on that they did not know about.  Regardless, we were there to work hard and help in whatever we could.

Day 1:  We woke up early and were at the facility by 7:30 a.m.  When going through security, I was reprimanded for having a can of soup in my lunch bag.  “No cans allowed” said the security, “leave it in a locker.” I was embarrassed, because I thought maybe I did not read the rules carefully enough.  But no, this was just an unwritten rule that was being enforced that day.  Once in the facility we talked to the woman and children to screen for potential Special Immigrant Juvenile Status cases, since there were no new intakes or credible fear interviews to prepare for.  We were uncertain if this low number was because women did not know that they could come to the visitor trailer and get legal advice or because no credible fear interviews were being scheduled.  At the facility the families have to request to be taken to the visitor trailer to talk to an attorney, it is not an automatic system, in which they are told to go get free legal counsel.  This of course ends up being very unfortunate for some families that have no legal counsel and are eventually removed from the United States, without ever seeing an attorney to advise them of their rights and their potential case.  Since it was slow, we also took the time to help a woman who had already been released to prepare an affidavit and her asylum application over the phone for her upcoming asylum hearing.

Day 2-6:  Since Day One was slow and there was not much to do, the CARA project reached out to a partner organization, RAICES in San Antonio to see if they needed extra help at the Karnes County Residential Center.  Two colleagues and I accepted the challenge to head over to Karnes County Residential Center on Day Two.  Day Two we were on the road by 7 a.m. to arrive in Karnes City by 8:30 am.  We arrived at the Karnes Family Residential Facility after driving through rural Texas for 1.5 hours.  Karnes City is made up of a population of about 3,200.  The “residential center” is a jail as well.  No matter what name they give it- it is a jail.

Generally the staff was friendly and tried to accommodate us with whatever we as attorneys needed.  Upon arriving we jumped in quickly because there was already a line of women waiting to see us.  We met with as many as we could get through in a day, which thankfully was all of them.  The majority of the meetings with the woman were to prepare them for their credible fear interviews and explaining the immigration process to them — since most of them had no idea what was required for an asylum claim and that they were in removal proceedings.  Some woman and children had interviews scheduled but others did not.

Every day for about 10 hours we listened to them tell their stories and tried to give them the tools to be their own advocates during their interviews.  At the time, I remember thinking how terrible each of their stories were yet how unfair our system was that most of them would not get the legal assistance they needed to tell their story and win their asylum cases.  Every person I met had a reason for leaving his or her home country.  None of their reasons were purely for a better life in the United States.  Instead, they had left their countries and everything and everyone they loved in order to survive.  They were all fleeing death.  No matter how reasonable or unreasonable their fears were — they were valid fears in light of the instability of their countries. At the time, I could not internalize their stories or emotions, because before I knew it time was up and I needed to move on the next woman.  Everyday was very long but fulfilling because I knew I was making a difference.

We ended up going to Karnes every single day during our stay, due to the need that the Karnes Residential facility had at that time.  There were more woman and children that needed to be seen than attorneys to see them.  When we arrived at the Karnes facility this was the situation — there was a deficit in attorneys.  During our stay we were able to get through all the women and children each day.  One can only assume that once we left, the deficit of available attorneys continued.  This is what broke my heart; that I was leaving, and the woman and children would not get the legal counsel they needed.

Present:  Leaving the Karnes Residential facility for the last time was sad.  I thought about all the women and children that continued to arrive at Karnes and would not have a fighting chance because they had no idea how to explain their asylum case.  They would not be released and instead removed from the United States.  My first week back in Chicago was rough.  I could not stop thinking about the women I had seen at the facilities.  At one point I had an emotional break.  I was filled with overwhelming guilt for returning to Chicago and leaving them behind.  I felt terrible that I had a good life to return to, that I had never dealt with the situations that these woman had in their home countries.  I felt like a terrible person, moving on with my life, knowing what I knew about who was detained in these facilities. This is something I still think about.  The women and children that are currently detained or have been detained in these government facilities, are some of the most courageous people I have ever met.  It is ironic really — they came to the United States fleeing their countries due to fears, but in many ways they are fearless for having made the journey here.  They have made the dangerous journey from their home countries with their small children, to escape the horrors of their homes.  They have made it here and now they sit in jails not understanding the language of this country or the legal process.  How is this happening?  This does not seem like the correct solution.  I do not know the correct solution, but certainly what our nation is doing to deal with this flux of refugees is not the correct one.  I am so grateful that I was able to spend a week doing pro bono work in this capacity and hopefully will able to continue in some capacity back here in Chicago.