Musing about law, books, and politics

Detention Center Journal

I’ve returned from Texas, after a stop in Santa Barbara for the Indivisible March. My detention center journal is now complete.

Preliminary Remarks

Raices needs Spanish speaking lawyers, or lawyers with translators. My husband is a native Spanish speaker, so we go as a team.

The law: If asylum seekers arrive without documents, they can:

💠Present themselves at a port of entry and claim asylum (fear of persecution), or

💠Enter illegally and present themselves to an official as quickly as possible and claim asylum.  § 208

They’re then entitled to hearings to determine if they’re eligible for asylum. 

Lawyers help them navigate the process.

‏Sunday, June 9

I reviewed the training materials and I’m ready to start work tomorrow. Most refugees are from El Salvador, Guatemala & Honduras—where endemic levels of violence pose the greatest danger to women, young adults, and children.

Categories of people in danger include:

💠women who don’t want to be property;

💠men who won’t join a gang (often the gang will threaten to kill their entire family)

💠men who identify as homosexual.

💠people who refuse to pay extortion moneyParagraph

💠people who witnessed a violent crime and cooperated with authorities

Last time I was here, I worked with a mother and preteen daughter, who fled because the daughter had very dark skin, and dark-skinned girls were in constant danger of being raped and killed (treated as subhuman). Dark-skinned girls had to be guarded at all times.

Another young mother fled after a gang killed her husband, and her  husband’s killer (according to gang custom) claimed her as his prize and property.

🤔Didn’t US policies in Central America exacerbate the problem (just as Putin helped destabilize Syria)?

Monday, June 10

The sign says “correctional facility.” I am not allowed to bring metal water bottles or eating utensils. Plastic only. I’m forbidden to give food or water to the families inside. I’m not permitted to take pictures of the interior. Make no mistake: This is a prison.

Tuesday, June 11

Tuesday: Last time I was here the detention center was mostly filled with young women with children fleeing gang violence. Don’t even get me started with how women are treated in those gangs. My clients were not members of gangs. They were kidnapped or otherwise forced to become gang property. They are here because they resisted and didn’t want to be property.

This time it seems most are fleeing political oppression. I guess they come in waves.

I listened to descriptions of totalitarianism in Cuba: If they don’t vote in national elections as required, the government finds out within a few days and they risk being killed. They can’t hide in the country: The government will find them.

The asylum seekers have said or done something so that they’ve been essentially marked: Either they conform or they risk “disappearing.” I wish everyone could take a turn in the chair I sat in yesterday. You see what gumption looks like. Each of these women have more gumption than most people you’ll meet in a lifetime.

After these stories, the “we are already living in an autocracy” doomsaying sounds silly. We’re tipping dangerously toward oligarchy, we’re not there yet.

I urge everyone to find a way to volunteer. Volunteering accomplishes 2 things:

  • You’ll help save our democracy [the only way to save democracy is through democratic means], and
  • You lift yourself out of daily news cycle, which helps conquer the Outrage Dilemma.

Wednesday, June 12

The workdays are long—we start at 9:15 and go til 8 pm. I’ve been able to work with about 6 clients per day. Some sessions take up to 2 hours, most 50 – 90 minutes.

Someone asked me to tell some of their stories. I can’t because of client confidentiality, but I can speak generally about the nature of the stories, because when you sit in the chair long enough, patterns emerge. People are running from places were the police do the bidding of the local boss. There is nothing even resembling due process.

People live in constant terror. I asked one woman what would happen if she stood up in public in her country and said, “A woman should be allowed to say no,” and she said, “I would be killed.”

Thursday, June 13

The work is satisfying; I know I am helping someone. I haven’t worked with a client who could return safely to her home country. Stories from Congo & Guatemala are among the most horrifying.

One difference from last time I was here: There aren’t enough volunteers, so many don’t get legal assistance. For many, returning home is certain death. (For others, a high probability)

If you speak Spanish (or can partner with an interpreter) and have any legal training consider spending a week here with @raicestexas As the saying goes: Whoever saves a life save the whole world.

Friday, June 14

While there are often not enough lawyers to do the work I did–working face to face with the clients–Raices now has enough voluntary lawyer so that each asylum seeker can have a lawyer present during her first hearing.

The lawyers appear remotely by telephone, basically listening to the hearing to make note of any issues. (It’s less time intensive and can be done remotely than the work I did.)

Here was something odd: Some asylum seekers had been told (& they believed) they were better off WITHOUT a lawyer.

Don’t worry. I explained. (They evidently trusted me.) Remember, they’re coming from places where all government and all officials (including police) are in the hands of the local gang, or a totalitarian regime without an independent judiciary, so the rumor was believable.

This is my last day in Texas. I’ll be heading back to California later. An exhausting week, but rewarding: I not only helped a lot of people — I pushed back against barbarity.


Instead of coming home with horror stories of what I saw in detention facilities, I came home with something else: After hearing the horror stories of what life is like in totalitarian societies, or where there is no functioning government (the government is in the hands of bandits and outlaws), I appreciate what we have here.

Let’s work to hold on to it.

Please, everyone: Find a way to volunteer. Let’s save American democracy.

[Click here to read as a Twitter thread]