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Fighting to #EndFamilyDetention - Laura Lichter, AILA Leadership Blog

April 21, 2015 (3 min read)

"I was on a flight to San Antonio Sunday morning and a short while after that was making my way across open farmland to Dilley, Texas, about an hour and half southeast. For this week, I’ll be heading up a team of legal volunteers for CARA at the euphemistically named “South Texas Family Residential Center.”  It’s not some family welcome center:  it’s a jail.

The CARA program is a joint effort by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and local and national nonprofit legal services providers, to help women and young children who were jailed by immigration authorities navigate through these complex procedures.  We’ll be here for a week, until the next team arrives.  And the next, and the next, and the next, until this practice of detaining families and bona fide refugees is stopped, once and for all.

The detainees aren’t just people violating our immigration laws and seeking to enter the U.S. for work or to join family.  In fact, the numbers prove that the overwhelming majority of these families are simply seeking refuge from horrific violence in their home countries.  Some have relatives in the U.S. that fled before them, others have no one here, but all left their home countries because to stay would mean further harm.

Despite proving that they have valid claims and undergoing a security and background check, they are detained and subject to extortionately high bonds.  In many cases, women who cannot afford a bond are being presented with the choice to separate from and surrender their children to foster care in order to get the children out of detention.  Asylum is not a game.  Refugees shouldn’t have to pay to play.

Until recently, Dilley was just another pleasant small Texas town. Now it’s going to have the same stain on its reputation as Artesia, New Mexico.  The private prison industry is big business, and family detention looks to be a very profitable expansion.

The contract for the massive, 2400+ bed facility (curiously implemented without the usual niceties of federal contracting controls) went to for-profit Corrections Corporation of America.  Eventually, the CCA facility in Dilley, together with a converted GEO facility (another for-profit private prison corporation) in Karnes City, will detain thousands of families.  These private jailers stand to make a killing, earning three to four times the daily rate of an adult in immigration detention.  At about $350 a day per person in Dilley CCA will rake in more than half a million dollars a week, and over $30 million a year.

Why are we jailing families with young children, even after they have undergone security checks and proven that they have valid refugee claims?  Good question, but no good answers.  The one you hear the most is, “politics.”  Perhaps politicians get confused between the problems caused by our broken immigration system, and the completely unrelated humanitarian crisis caused by factors outside our borders.  The government wants to look like it’s doing something about immigration, and jailing families is the lowest of low hanging fruit.

Whatever your concerns about the surge of refugees at our southern border, jailing women and young children is not an American answer to an international humanitarian crisis.  We’re supposed to be the good guys, but family detention is cruel by any measure. We are starting to look more like countries around the world that we despise, just so a few politicians can burnish their “optics” and a few private corporations can make a profit.  Detaining refugee families will not only be a stain on Dilley, but on all of us, on America.

Written by Laura Lichter, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer


If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at – we could really use your help.

To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page." - AILA Leadership Blog, Apr. 21, 2015.