DILLEY: What Every Immigration Attorney Should Know

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1. The Reality of Life in the Baby Jail aka the “Family Residential Center” in Dilley, TX

The Dilley Family Residential Center, or the "Baby Jail" as we like to call it (which is what it really is), is a detention center in the tiny town of Dilley, Texas. It detains only women and children, between 1000-2500 at any given time. These women and children fled violence from around the world, but mostly from Central America, to ask for asylum at the US Border. Instead of treating these asylum seekers, who are akin to refugees, with open, welcoming arms and a safe arrival, the US government detains them in jail. 

I have been in practice for nearly 15 years, and I have carried high levels of asylum cases for both detained immigrants and non-detained immigrants. What was most surprising to me is that it was if I were hearing all of the asylum stories I heard in the past 15 years and squeezing them into 72 hours.  

Dilley is not so much a detention center as it is a series of attached double-wide trailers. It is in the middle of the desert, so some of the trailers are hot but most are freezing cold. They have a medical staff but it is too small a staff for a detention facility housing thousands. Many of the mothers report having to wait 5-6 hours to see a nurse practitioner, not even a doctor, who is ill-prepared to deal with the specialty of providing medical care in a detained setting. They are compassionate, caring people, but they simply cannot keep up with the demand. 

Dilley is right on the Mexican border (one of my credit cards got shut off because the company thought it was being used in Mexico), and it is difficult to get to. It is a 90 minute car ride from San Antonio. Resident volunteers live at “The Ranch,” which is in the middle of nowhere off of a dirt road. Every Sunday, the resident volunteers greet the newly-arrived attorney volunteers with a large meal while giving a crash course on Dilley and asylum. Many of the attorney volunteers arrive with necessary supplies, such as food, coffee, and anything else that may be needed, so that they can get started at 7am on Monday. 

2. These Mothers are a Testament to a Mother’s Love Which Can Transcend Any Obstacle

The Mothers are some of the most courageous women I have ever met. Just the thought of fleeing in the middle of the night alone without so much as my purse with one child scares the bejesuz out of me, let alone fleeing with 2, 3, or 4 children. They walk, they hitch rides, they run, they swim, and they hide from checkpoints not just at the US border but at borders along the way with Honduras or Guatemala. They carry their children in their arms no matter how big or small for whatever distance is required. They leave situations that are more dangerous than is comprehendible for most people only to arrive at a detention facility where they are locked up alongside their children. They are made to wear matching t-shirts and jeans, despite the fact that many of the women are indigenous who only wear tribal clothing which never includes pant for women. 


The women are fleeing violence. They are fleeing countries who do not protect women and children from horrific abuse. Some of them are fleeing husbands who beat and rape them and their children on a daily basis. Some of them are coming from countries where mass graves of 8,000 up to 100,000 women’s bodies have been found and femicide is an accepted part of society. They flee drug lords who have "fallen in love” with their 9 year old daughters, drug lords who wish to conscript their 9 year old sons into the "War on Drugs", drug pushers who wish to remove their babies’ organs and use them to hold bags of drugs. They flee corrupt politicians who incarcerate women who speak out for their rights. These women have been deprived of rights that we in the United States find so fundamental that we never give them a second thought. 

3. It Is Difficult to Convey the Horrors of Detaining Children

I did not meet one child who was not sick. Every mother was sick as well. They are trapped indoors, confined to a space that blasts air conditioning and, until recently, had the lights on 24/7.Even the volunteers, who are not detained, begin to exhibit runny noses or coughs within 48 hours of arriving. They will not allow anyone to bring in hand sanitizer. 

The saddest are the children. They have fevers that are so hot that they can be felt across the table. They have sunken eyes or sinus cavities. Their noses are so runny and green they rival my dog’s nose. They have coughs that make them sound like barking hyenas. If my words offend you because I am comparing them to animals, then I have accomplished my goal. The conditions there are worse than my local animal shelter where they euthanize dogs and cats. At one point we threatened to call 911 because a child was so despondent with fever and was refused meaningful medical treatment. A lot of a volunteer’s time is spent taking affidavits from women about their horrid detention conditions.

In all the days and hours I spent there, the worst thing of all was the silence. There are no laughing children. Go to any day care or school and the first thing you notice is the sound of children laughing, screaming, and playing. In Dilley, the children have nothing to laugh about.  

On the walk ramp on my way to court, I can see the women walking in circles as most women in detention facilities do.  The only difference is that these women are pushing strollers. Their babies are silent, and not because they are napping, rather because they are sick. They are all victims not only of the situations that they escaped, but also of detention.

4. A Day of the Life of a Volunteer in Dilley

Most of an attorney volunteer's time at Dilley is spent preparing women for their Credible Fear Interviews (“CFI”) or preparing them for reviews of the negative CFI's before an immigration judge. These stories take an emotional toll on all of the lawyers there, from newbies to seasoned attorneys. Some volunteers openly cry right along with the women. Some save the cryingfor the middle of the night when insomnia and the Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress kick in. Some attorneys become immune to the suffering in order to cope, which is a sign that s/he should not be volunteering at Dilley. 

Each day starts at 7am, and the women and children arrive immediately. (They get there so fast that if you haven’t finished your breakfast, you will find yourself doing a consult with a mouth full of food!).The entire day is filed with “charlas,” or chats, where volunteers meet with small groups of women to give legal presentations which are followed by individual meetings. In the individual meetings, we help prepare them for their CFI’s, courts, translate documents, gather proofs needed to ask for bond/release/ankle bracelets, and more. 

Volunteers take lunch on shifts ensuring that every moment of the day is spent with the detained mothers and children and ensuring their legal needs are met. Some volunteers use lunch time to decompress from the emotional strain of the day. After the visiting hours have ended for the day, the attorney volunteers leave for dinner on their own then meet back at The Ranch for “Big Table.” Big Table is a forum to discuss legal issues, facility issues, and to support one another in dealing with the emotional trauma that we have all suffered in doing this work. 

It is a hard balancing act for volunteers. We must zealously advocating for our clients while maintaining a relationship with the people who still hold 2400 other clients hostage {cough, cough}, I mean detained. 

5. How to Volunteer

The Volunteer Program is run by CARA, a collaboration of organizations including AILA. You must submit an application to apply to volunteer.  Once accepted as a volunteer, and all the necessary background checks and clearances, you will receive emails of training materials and participate in a phone conference. 

What I found touching is that the residents of Dilley are very sympathetic to the cause of finding freedom for these detained mothers and children.  When I won 4 bond hearings in one day winning freedom for 4 families, I thought it would be nice to buy a bottle of champagne and other snacks to celebrate with my fellow volunteers. When I got to the checkout, the cashier mentioned how it looked like I was have a little party and I told her what we were celebrating. She was so overjoyed, she paid my bill. It is enough to make you want to go back.

6. How You Can Help Without Making the Trip

Whenever you get a chance, and so long as you heart pressure can take, defend asylum seekers. Approximately 75% of detainees have no legal representation. I know not everyone reading this will be able to jump in the minivan and trek down Dilley, TX, but you can still help:

  • Donate directly to CARA here
  • Shop our Amazon Wish List
  • Help fund attorney volunteers who are making the trip on their own dime
  • You can donate to my next Dilley Volunteer trip here
  • We are working on getting volunteers in by Skype. Keep in touch with Maheen at MTaqui@aila.org. 
  • Spread the word through Social Media with the hashtags:
  • #EndFamilyDetention
  • #CloseDilley
  • #AmigasHelpingRefugees

Mayra Calo Esquire is a 14 year immigration attorney practicing out of Tampa, FL.  She dedicates herself to the human rights aspects of immigration law. She is the mother of 3 bio-kids and a beloved stepson who has gifted her with a grandson. She lives with her pirate love boyfriend, his two teenage daughters and a grouchy Chihuahua. For more information about Mayra and her firm, check out her website www.caloimmigraion.us, and follow her on Twitter @MayraCalo and on Facebook.