I didn’t want to go… Then I didn’t want to leave

I didn’t want to go to Dilley, Texas. It was the wrong time in my life to be gone for a week—I just got back from a week in London, work was busy, I was tired. But months ago, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions implemented the “zero tolerance” immigration policy I had committed to a week of volunteering on the ground in Dilley. There is nothing in Dilley but a prison, an oil rig, and the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC), which is where I was headed. The STFRC is the largest of three family detention centers in the United States. It has 2400 beds and is operated by CoreCivic, a for-profit correctional company formerly called Correction Corporations of America (CCA). This was where the Dilley Pro Bono Project, formerly CARA Pro Bono, is imbedded.

After 12 hours of traveling and a 4-hour training on the nuances of asylum law and the do’s and don’ts of volunteering in a detention center, I was exhausted. Luckily, our Monday morning would start so early that I wouldn’t have time to dread it before I was thrown into the work. I managed to make friends with two other volunteers over the continental breakfast at the Days Inn. I cannot emphasize this enough, when you’re about to embark on a difficult week—MAKE FRIENDS. As we pulled into the parking lot of the STFRC, I hushed the voices telling me to turn around and fly back to Philly. I reminded myself that whatever discomfort I was experiencing, it was nothing to what the mothers inside had endured. I reminded myself of my values—that because I lead a relatively safe life, through an accident of birth, it is my responsibility to give of myself to make the world safer for others. And so I allowed myself to be scanned, my bag to be searched, and I handed over my passport.


In my first hour at the STFRC I was glad I came. I felt that familiar high I get when there are people who need me that I know how to help. As it washed over me, I stopped thinking about myself and focused on what needed to be done. My first day I spent a lot of time on administrative tasks, which is what I thought my whole week would entail, as a non-Spanish speaker. At some point I was sent to accompany a woman to her Credible Fear Interview, the first step in the asylum process. I was nervous about leaving the Visitor trailer and venturing further into the compound but my nerves were nothing compared to the woman next to me. She was about to tell the Asylum Officer her reasons for seeking asylum and then have to wait a week for his decision. If he granted her a “positive,” she and her children would be able to leave the detention center and stay with their sponsor while she waded through the lengthy and arduous asylum process.  If he gave her a “negative,” they would have to stay in detention while the appeal process took place. The pressure must have felt enormous.

By Tuesday I was comfortable enough that with an interpreter I could help women prepare for their Credible Fear Interviews. That’s what I spent the rest of the week doing. Although the Dilley Pro Bono Project put out a call for lawyers, the more preps I did, the more grateful I was for my therapeutic training. I walked the mothers through the legal process but most of my job was to absorb her story and then help her narrow it down to the pieces that the Asylum Officer needed to know. Every woman I spoke with had been exposed to dangers and traumas that surpassed anything I had heard in the U.S., even with my background in crisis counseling. They didn’t know what was relevant so they told me everything.

CARA Pro Bono Project

The volunteers had two meetings during the week to process our work. Many of the volunteers had no experience with this level of trauma and were visibly distressed. I was grateful that these meetings had been built into the week. During the first meeting most of the comments were about how emotional the work was and how disappointed we were that our country has a system that makes this work necessary. In the last meeting people were able to identify some high points during the week. Several of us agreed that one of the best feelings was when we explained to the mothers that we didn’t work for the detention center or the government; that we were just there for them. I haven’t quite found the words to describe the look on their faces—not joy, the experience was too heavy for that, but more than relief. For women who had been scared in their homes, alone on their journeys, and were now being held in a government facility, it must have been so welcomed to hear that someone was there for them.

When Friday came and we prepared to leave for the last time I found myself with more regret than I could have predicted. Although the 12-14-hour days were grueling, I fantasized about becoming one of the Dilley Pro Bono Project staff members who stayed for a year or more. The organizing work I’ve been doing is wrapped up in long-term goals. It was satisfying to know that at the end of the day there were people who were in a better position because of what I was able to offer. I’ll continue my advocacy work back in Philadelphia because I am determined to change the way our country treats immigrants, particularly mothers, but I cannot overstate how meaningful this week on the ground in Dilley was for me. At the beginning of the week I didn’t want to go and by the end of the week I didn’t want to leave.

Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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