A week in Dilley, Texas

Opinion by Maya Mahony
Feb. 25, 2020, 12:18 a.m.


We wake up before sunrise to get to the immigration detention center. My classmates are quiet in the van. We’ve been taking a human rights class at Stanford all quarter –– learning about the immigration situation at the border, improving our Spanish –– but we don’t feel ready. We turn off the highway. The sign reads “South Texas Family Residential Center.” 

We step into the security trailer. On the walls are renderings of smiling detainees, at the playground, in the dining hall. CoreCivic employees usher us through the metal detector. CoreCivic is a private company, contracted by the U.S. government to run immigration detention centers, raking in more than a billion dollars in profit each year. We have to put our belongings in clear plastic backpacks so security can check for contraband like cellphones, cameras and crayons.

We walk across a platform to the visitation trailer. Inside, plastic tinsel hangs from the ceiling. The detained women and kids wear brightly colored sweat-suits. The Dilley Pro Bono Project occupies two small rooms in the visitation trailer. There are a few lawyers, some paralegals, dozens of volunteers. Drawings by detained children cover the walls: butterflies, a heart with an arrow and one that shows, neatly labeled, “Mami” sitting next to the “Abogada.”  My class is here to help families prepare for credible fear interviews. Most of them have fled from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They need to prove that they were persecuted in their country because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or for belonging to a particular social group. One of Trump’s new rules forbids most people who passed through Mexico from being able to ask for asylum in the U.S., so we’ll try to get them protection through other legal mechanisms, like the Convention Against Torture. Trump has also ensured that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are doing most of the interviews these days instead of trained asylum officials. The CBP officers tend to be more adversarial than asylum officials, and hardly anyone passes. Once denied, a migrant can appeal in front of an immigration judge, but there’s still not much hope. Some judges are denying all domestic violence cases, though there’s legal precedent for accepting them. Even if they pass their interview, Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy aims to send them to wait for their official asylum hearing in crime-ridden border cities Mexico, where many fear for their lives. 

My classmates and I aren’t lawyers. We can’t represent the clients in court; but we can prepare them for their credible fear interviews, letting them know which parts of their stories they should be sure to mention in front of the officers. For my first task, I work with a classmate on an interview prep for a young woman with a long braid of hair looping over her shoulder. She’s just a few years older than me, and holds tight to her daughter’s hand. She tells us that a cartel kidnapped her husband. Then they tried to kidnap all the children in her town who are four years or older. Her daughter is four, yes, this one, whom I’ve just given my pen so she can doodle on the back of my volunteer handbook.     

“What are you drawing?” the mom asks. 

“You, Mami.”

Hours later, we’re still working on her case. Her story doesn’t fit easily into the restrictive asylum laws. She wasn’t persecuted for her race, religion, nationality or political opinion, and it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular social group. There are no laws that protect her 4-year-old daughter. The daughter is back at the table and getting restless. I distract her with peekaboo, ducking my head under and over the plastic table until she’s cackling with delight.   


On the drive to jail from the hotel, sunrise streaks the sky gold. Flocks of birds murmur over the fields. My classmate and I talk with a middle-aged woman. We’re appealing her domestic violence case. She’s tired, kind, takes notes in big, wobbly handwriting. 

It’s hard to believe that this case was rejected the first time. Her husband was in with both the mara (criminal gang) and the police. When she tried to denounce him, his police friends told him and he beat her even harder. When she fled with her children to a different town, mareros shot up their new house. She got a text from her husband saying, “This was just a warning.” 

A group of detained toddlers have discovered the hand sanitizer dispenser mounted on the wall and are having a ball getting it to squirt the foam onto their hands. They giggle and rub their hands together and reach up for more. 

I’m assigned to file motions to vacate cases for tomorrow. Once people request to go to immigration court to appeal their negative decisions, they’re supposed to get a hearing within seven days. Instead, these women are waiting for months. All of tomorrow’s cases have violated the seven-day rule, so we’re filing to get them vacated. 

“Tomorrow could be a very good day,” says one of the lawyers as I’m leaving.  


It’s so cold we can see our breath. The cases don’t get vacated. The women with the domestic violence case from yesterday, that one whose husband was in with the mara and the police — she’s going to be deported back to the country she fled. My professor comes back from court weeping with rage.  


She speaks quietly, so I have to lean forward to hear. She’s crunched up inside her sweatshirt like she wishes she could disappear. She’s already gotten a negative, doesn’t have much hope. Her abusive husband ran a taxi business and had his drivers on the lookout for her wherever she tried to hide in the city. Sometimes, after a beating, she would go to the cops, but they always said, “It’s a couple’s problem, figure it out.” 

In a pause in our conversation, she flips through a little bible with a black leather cover. 

“Do you have a favorite psalm you’re reading?” I say. Her whole face lights up. 

She recites it for me. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” I’ve never heard it in Spanish before. I don’t mention I’m an agnostic Jew. I just smile, nod.

When she talks about God her whole demeanor is different. Her eyes shine, she sits up straight, she looks calm and radiant, like she’s teaching me. 

She looks in my eyes, soft, sure and says, “They say that Jesus gave us two pearls in our heart. Truth and love. And we need to keep them safe.” 

“I see that in you,” I tell her. “So much truth. So much love.”

That afternoon I work with a woman and her teenage boy. They got rejected because our current laws do not provide protection for those who have received death threats for extortion. I ask if anything else happened to them back home that we can use for the appeal. Turns out a man sexually molested the boy and, after the assault, kids in school and adults in the street started beating up the boy for being “gay.” They pushed him and shouted slurs and cut his arms. This could qualify the family for protection; they just didn’t know to talk about it during the first interview. The boy answers my questions in a quiet voice, lowering his head, then raising it again, looking at me with brown eyes. 

The next woman rattles off her story so rapidly it’s difficult to follow. There’s the threat from the mayor and the situation with the narcos and the kidnapping by the coyotes … Her son colors in a picture as the story goes on. She’s so tough, so confident throughout the hours, until finally we’re in this little room talking to her husband on the phone. He’s on the outside, in California. They haven’t seen each other in months. If she gets deported, it might be years more. 

“I miss you,” he says, and she starts to cry. Nothing loud, the tears just sliding down.

Her son says, “Are you sad, Mami?” 

“No, no, I’m not sad.” 

“But you’re crying!”   

She looks to me so I say, weakly, “Oh, you know, sometimes people cry.” And then I shake her hand and she and her son go on their way. I’ll never see them again. 

I go to the Dilley Pro Bono Project room, and sit on the floor. People keep coming in and out of the door. The floor is shiny white and smooth. I seem to be shaking. 

The paralegal comes up to me. “Ready for another prep?”

 “I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t…” And then I’m crying. 

My classmate takes me outside, through the security trailer. We walk around the big cold parking lot until I stop shaking. The air is sweet and the last bit of gold sunset is fading from the sky.  

After the day’s work, we go to the headquarters of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, a little ranch house down a dirt road. There’s raggedy grass and an old fence. Crickets are chirping. It’s only a couple minutes from the detention center, but it’s far enough away that the floodlights can’t reach. I can see the stars. All the volunteers pile into the ranch house, squashing into the couches, for a discussion. We talk about how the week is going. We’re all crying. My classmates, my professors. 

One of my classmates says he’s decided he needs to do something more important with his life than his engineering major has trained him for. One classmate says she’s always wanted to be a human rights lawyer but is now so devastated she doesn’t think she can do it. One long-time volunteer says this is the worst week she’s seen here. Just six months ago, before the new restrictions, all of these clients would have passed their credible fear interviews. 


I’m sitting in a little room. Through the blinds, I can see a bit of the playground. This is the closest to the inside of the detention center I’ve seen. The playground is empty, unlike that drawing on the security trailer wall, the one that showed all the smiling detainees. 

Only 15 minutes more here. I can’t wait to leave. And I’ve only been here a week. The detained families have been here for months. My classmates have told me of an indigenous woman at whom Dilley guards hurled slurs. Of a little girl who hasn’t spoken since she passed through la hielera, the freezing cold prison into which ICE throws new migrants before they send them here. Most of the families I’ve worked with have had their interviews by now. So far, none of them have qualified to stay. When they leave Dilley, they’ll be heading back to the very countries they fled. Back to the dangers they struggled so hard to escape.        

I try to focus on a bit of hope: maybe, if we spread the word, if we collectively demonstrate against these atrocities, if we raise money, if we work to elect a new president in a few months, things can change. I have to believe that change is possible.   

Finally, we leave. Out of the visitation trailer, through security, into the rainy parking lot. I’m quiet on the drive back to San Antonio. I can see the windshield wipers going, pushing water that’s lit up gold from the headlights. We drive by miles and miles of dark fields. I put my music on shuffle, and on comes “Ella’s Song.”         

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes…”               

Contact Maya Mahony at mmahony ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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