By GuestBlogger (Anon)
This post is the third of a 3-part series documenting the experience of an immigrant rights attorney volunteering at the Family Detention Center in Dilley, TX. Because of the nature of her work, she has requested to remain anonymous. [Part 1; Part 2]
By the end of the week in the detention center, you finally feel like you know what you’re doing. You know what the women are coming in for, you know what you can do to help, what they need to bring, how you do it, etc, etc. By this point you’ve also probably got a favorite or two–children, mother, or story. I, being a sucker for small children, loved all of them.
One boy, maybe 5-8 (it’s so hard to tell with this population), who I first met in the waiting room of the asylum trailer at 7:30 one morning. We bonded over legos, and my encouragement of his building a tower. The next day, I see a tiny body running up to me in the visitation trailer: “HOLA!!!!” It’s him. “Hola, ya veniste a visitarme?” (“Hi, did you come to visit me?”) I ask him. He smiles, nodding almost shyly, and runs back off to his friends of the hour. Every time he runs by me that day, he makes sure he stops and waves. The next day, one of the guards buys him a bag of chips, which he shares with me (I guess he felt my salad was just not enough).
A little indigenous boy, who could not have been more than 2 or 3-years-old and stole all of our hearts. His mom was in one of the private rooms speaking to one of the volunteers, and this kid was running around in the surrounding rooms looking like he owned the place. He was so incredibly curious and smart. It was incredible to watch. Walking himself into one of our fearless leaders, Brian’s office, he picked up the phone (which he could barely reach) and started speaking into it. After maybe 15 seconds of “conversation,” he turns to me, handing me the phone, as if saying “come on, they want to talk to you.” When he wasn’t busy talking on the phone, he was busily going through a messenger bag sitting on a chair, from which he claimed a business card. Then, he began going through all of Brian’s desk drawers, finding something he liked–and carefully putting in the business card in exchange.
These are just two of a myriad of examples that I and other volunteers have of the precosiousness–and resourcefullness– of the children detained in Dilley. But in addition to this, what truly impressed me, each and every day I was there, was how *well-behaved* these children were. I saw few to no children misbehaving (and there were probably a couple dozen children in the visitation trailer every day, at least), few crying (most of those being the youngest), and almost none who didn’t listen to their mothers, the guards, or even us.
While this certainly made our work easier, it almost creeped me out. What have these children gone through? What are these children now going through? What kind of lives are we putting them through that they have adapted to being in a trailer with a bunch of adults and limited entertainment for hours at a time without complaining? What do these children go through every. single. day. that this is the norm for them, and thus they do not misbehave? Now, maybe I’m wrong, and all of these children are just exceptionally well-behaved in life and their behavior and temperaments haven’t changed at all, but… I’ve known enough children in my life, heck I was even one myself once, to find that highly unlikely.
Which brings me to my breaking point. “They” say that every volunteer has a breaking point — a moment where you just have to stop, breathe, and cry to accept everything that’s going on around you. It being Friday, I thought I’d made it through without reaching that point. After all, thought I, I work exclusively with a population that is fleeing these exact things. While hearing these horror stories over and over again doesn’t make them any better, and you don’t really ever get used to it, I guess you do, out of necessity, build some armour.
And true, indeed, my breaking point did not come from a story, though some backstory here is needed: I was in a credible fear interview with a young woman, younger than my sister, and her 3, almost 4, year-old daughter. Despite the horrible things this young woman, let’s call her Maria, was talking about, her daughter refused to leave the room–rarely, in fact, would be out of touching distance from her mother.
Maria was a young woman who our contact in the Asylum Office had very specifically brought over to us and changed her interview for that week because there were more volunteers and he felt someone should accompany her to the interview. He was worried that there had been some sort of abuse by CBP (Customs and Border Protection), and that she was extremely traumatized, because she refused to speak to him. [Editor’s Note: Such abuse has been documented in other cases.] As things turned out, thankfully, there had not been any physical abuse by agents at the border, and she refused to speak to him because he was a man — she does not react well to men.
To make a long story short, this was a young woman who had been in a physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive relationship with an extremely controlling man who threatened to either kill her or sell her into prostitution if she ever tried to leave him. I prepped her, and accompanied her to her interview. When the asylum officer asked if Maria could return to her country, she calmly said “No, he’ll kill me, or worse.” Thirty seconds later, when the officer stepped into the hallway, she turned to me, sobbing, clearly terrified, saying “Yo no puedo regresar a mi país, no puedo.” (“I can’t return to my country. I can’t”).
But my breaking point isn’t about her, it’s about her little girl. A little girl who, to fall asleep, had to be in her mothers arms touching her mother’s cheek with her little hand. A three-year-old girl who, as of today, has been in detention for 17 days.
In that day’s interview, she had done a reasonably good job of entertaining herself — coloring, blowing her nose constantly (remember the-3 year-old who blew her nose like an expert from the first round of stories?), being in her mother’s arms, holding my hand, etc. At a certain point, nearing the end, she began to pull kleenex from the box, not to blow her nose, but to play with them.
Seeing this, her mother grabbed a couple of the kleenex and made a little flower for the girl. Delighted, the girl showed it to me and then brought it up to her nose, as if smelling it, and then offered it to me to smell as well. And this, this was my breaking point.
My eyes filled with tears, and if I had been in a situation where I could have (ie not an interview in the asylum office), I would have sat down and sobbed. What are we doing that a three year old girl has to “smell” a kleenex flower? What are we putting children through, that that is the best she has? Where is our consciousness, our humanity, our sense of freaking common decency??
Three year olds should not be smelling kleenex flowers in jail.