At IFCLA’s Dinner Dialogo on Friday, Oct. 5th, SLU junior and dedicated friend of IFCLA Marissa Ornelas spoke about her ten-week experience at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, over the summer of 2018. Marissa shared informative facts and figures about the immigration system and the way that the Dilley detention center functions, but she also shared poignant and powerful first-person testimonies of the hardship and injustices she witnessed during her time there.
Marissa spoke with clarity about the current state of the US immigration system, detailing immigrants’ journeys from hieleras (freezers) to perreras (dog cages) in detention centers like the one in Dilley. She worked with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a team of legal professionals and volunteers who help detained mothers and children prepare for their credible fear interviews, which, if deemed “positive,” allow their asylum case to begin and sometimes allows her and her children’s release from jail. Marissa frequently worked 12-hour days, prepping client after client for interviews that were sure to be traumatic, as they necessitate an immigrant recounting all the personal trauma that led them to flee their country of origin - often stories of intense gang violence, sexual violence, political corruption or police violence, or unsafe domestic situations.
Marissa explained that the atmosphere at the detention center was strict and unjust. She cited instances when ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents confiscated or threw away important documents, causing families to redo integral steps of their immigration processes. She mentioned the lack of record-keeping that led to dangerous oversights such as re-vaccinating children with the same vaccinations multiple times. She told us that the water supply in Dilley was contaminated and children were often very sick, but there were so few doctors on site that families often tried to handle medical emergencies alone. In specific relation to her work preparing women for their credible fear interviews, she told her audience that in Dilley, there are no mental health resources for women and children who have experienced incredible amounts of trauma, both in their home countries and in the US.
But Marissa spoke of more than just the traumatic and unjust parts of her time in Dilley. She offered powerful anecdotes of the resilience and strength of the women she met and worked with, and of the innocent playfulness of children she encountered. She shared with the audience her vision for the future: a nationwide organization that helps families recently released from detention centers integrate into American life.
Marissa’s contribution to immigration justice has been powerful and whole-hearted, and IFCLA is proud to call her part of our family. But even if you can’t spend ten weeks working full-time without pay at an immigration detention center, you can do your part to demand just immigration policies. On September 7, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) proposed regulation changes that would terminate the Flores Settlement, discontinuing the precedent that limits children’s detention to twenty days.
The period for public comment on this regulation is open NOW. Click here for a public comment template from the Immigration Justice Campaign, which you can use to submit a formal public comment on the Federal Register here.
It is up to all of us to demand an end to immigrant detention; as Marissa so aptly told us, whether children are separated from their parents or not, all immigrant detention is dehumanizing and unjust. Help us fight back!