More than 120 women with children — loaded into government vehicles and shuffled from city to city — arrived this month at the immigrant family detention center in Dilley, adding to the caseloads of lawyers working out of a large mobile home on the grounds.
On an overcast Tuesday, days after deportation raids rattled the Atlanta area, the rooms buzzed. Toddlers played in the visitation area. Babies cried. Center staffers kept watch.
Amid the bustle were Barbara Hines and Denise Gilman.
Anyone who has practiced immigration law in Texas — or the country — has heard of Hines, founder of the immigration law clinic at the University of Texas, renowned for bringing international attention to the grim conditions at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor in 2006. Working at her side for the past eight years has been Gilman, 47, an attorney and law professor who has directed the clinic since Hines, 68, retired more than a year ago.
Hines and Gilman are among the chief architects of a network of lawyers, legal assistants, students and volunteers who work on immigrants’ cases for free at the two family detention centers that opened in the summer of 2014 in South Texas. With scarce resources and the threat of deportations, the women get help from the lawyers to make their best case for asylum.
As federal agencies have struggled with a peak of nearly 60,000 children and teens crossing into the United States without their parents, mostly from Central America, the Obama administration has sped up the deportation proceedings of another nearly 60,000 mothers and children who crossed together.
Federal officials say the expedited deportations are necessary to deter other immigrant families from making the journey north and to reduce the number of people already here. A second influx of 10,500 Central Americans crossing the southern border prompted the immigration raids in early January.
Volunteers who work with Hines and Gilman are under constant pressure. There were about a dozen lawyers and other assistants in the mobile home at Dilley, about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio, that Tuesday. The new clients, mostly from Atlanta, swamped them, while women who had been detained for longer continued to cycle through the makeshift office at the rate of 15 every two hours.
Mothers sobbed and told harrowing stories of poverty, abuse at the hands of fathers and husbands, and death threats from those involved in organized crime. One said her children’s school had been taken over by gangs, producing a note from the principal to prove it.
On the drive back home, Gilman recalled, she felt so sick and worn out that Hines had to stop the car twice for fresh air.
Under international and domestic laws, refugees must first step foot within U.S. borders to seek asylum in the United States, and escaping violence is not enough to receive the legal protection. Rather, people must show a fear of persecution based on religion, race or political opinion — or show they are endangered members of a “particular social group,” a gray area that has helped U.S. immigration lawyers, like Hines and Gilman, argue that their clients are members, for instance, of a family targeted by gangs or drug cartels.
Children and their mothers face expedited removal, often in a matter of days, unless they can demonstrate in an initial screening that they have “credible fear” of persecution or torture if deported to their home country.
“It is shocking to see that these are the women and children considered by our government to be a priority enforcement target,” Gilman said. “Detention means that people are going to be summarily deported back to their countries, even though they have good asylum claims. It means that even if they are then released and allowed to pursue their asylum claims, they are going to be living with this trauma on top of trauma.”
At no point in the process are immigrant women and minors entitled to a lawyer if they cannot afford one, leaving the majority of mothers to navigate a complex and foreign system without guidance.
“These are life and death stakes, and it is so important to have dedicated counsel helping families through the process,” said Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrant Rights’ Clinic at Columbia Law School.
The Obama administration says the system is still fair, even while it works faster than before.
“Each of these individuals is considered on a case-by-case basis for any sort of humanitarian or asylum claims they may have to make. And their legal remedies are exhausted before they are deported,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said this month after the immigration raids. “We are committed to working through due process on a case-by-case basis.”
Lessons from Hutto
Hines never dreamed the United States would return to a family detention policy, not under President Barack Obama, not after what she saw at the Hutto center in Taylor.
That detention center, less than 35 miles from Austin, opened in May 2006 to house families from around the world. Most had been taken into custody in immigration raids. Within three months, Hines recalls, law students at her immigration law clinic began receiving calls from women inside.
Children and babies were dressed in prison jumpsuits, locked up in small cells, and banned from keeping food and toys. They had no access to education or medical care.
“I think what really stuck with me there was the desperation of the women,” she said. “There were no legal services there.”
First, Hines turned to the media. But she had no coalition. When reporters were not interested, she said, she decided the clinic needed to represent the women and called the American Civil Liberties Union.
“She talked about it everywhere to anyone she could, and she mobilized the ACLU to move faster than we ever had in terms of putting together a lawsuit,” said Lisa Graybill, who at the time served as the legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “When they put Hutto in Texas, they didn’t count on the fact of there being a Barbara Hines.”
The Hutto facility now houses only adult women after the ACLU and the UT law clinic reached a settlement with the government in 2007. The litigation improved conditions at the center and shortened the length of time families could be held.
It also led to broader reform within the immigration detention system, such as the re-evaluation of medical care for detainees, said Alonzo Peña, retired Immigration and Customs Enforcement deputy director. The attention “was something that I say was sorely needed, and it has had a positive impact,” he said.
Scramble to Karnes
Gilman arrived at UT days after the Hutto settlement. Together, she and Hines were at the forefront of lawyers and activists who continued to bring attention to the facility until Obama ended the detention of families there in 2009. Now they are once more at the front lines. But this time, there are nonprofits, church groups, law student clinics and dozens of immigration lawyers working alongside them.
Hines and Gilman were among the first lawyers to mobilize efforts to represent women at the 830-bed Karnes County Residential Center, about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio, reaching out to attorneys, former students and large law firms across the country. Hines also gained access at the 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley for Mukherjee and her immigration clinic.
Since then, four legal nonprofits have formed the CARA project to staff Dilley with two full-time lawyers, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, in San Antonio is helping coordinate a rotating network of volunteer lawyers who travel to South Texas to take on cases and represent clients via video conference.
About 200 volunteers have helped families at Karnes, and more than 550 have assisted those at Dilley.
Most legal efforts are focused on helping women pass their credible fear interviews and attain bonds.
But the resources are never enough. More than 70 percent of some 13,200 women with children who have passed their credible fear interviews in Texas are currently without a lawyer.
Getting to the law office on the grounds also is difficult for women, as center staffers have no obligation to tell them the option is available, and they are not allowed to enter the mobile home unless they have first contacted a lawyer by phone, lawyers said.
Many never find out about the services. Karina Flores, who was held at Karnes for several months, said she felt lucky when a fellow detainee told her about the office, which was on the same grounds where she and her 5-year-old daughter were staying.
“I would not have gotten out without help,” she said.