Until last August, Andrés Abella had never been away from his children for more than two days. He hadn't visited a family immigrant center, and, as a journalist by training who now works for a nonprofit, is not an attorney.
But he felt drawn to volunteer for a grueling week at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, where he could assist legal teams providing services to immigrant women and children who were locked up there. The Chilean native took time away from his job at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network to help with translation, paperwork and anything else needed for families seeking asylum in the U.S.
It was a striking experience for him, particularly knowing his 5- and 7-year-olds were back home, able to go wherever they wanted.
"Being away from your family and seeing all these little kids -- at one point it hit me hard," he said.
Abella is part of a massive effort to bring in volunteers -- attorneys, legal assistants and more -- to help women and children in immigrant detention centers. More than 700 volunteers have traveled to facilities in Texas to work long hours for at least a week, helping nearly 8,000 families start the process to seek asylum, according to the CARA Pro Bono Project.
The attorneys and other volunteers have donated more than $6.75 million of their time, the group estimated -- a staggering figure for what they say is a staggering problem: women and children being held in immigrant detention.
"To me, it's really sad that we're having to do this at all, because family detention is not something that should even exist," said Dree Collopy, an attorney who visited the Texas facilities in February.
Immigration officials opened a temporary family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, in June 2014, during a surge in the number of families and unaccompanied minors being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Detaining families in mass numbers was a break from past Obama administration policy -- early in his presidency, the administration shut down the controversial T. Don Hutto Residential Center, infamous for putting children behind barbed wire fences. The only family immigrant detention center left as of early 2014 was a 100-person facility in Pennsylvania.
The 2014 border crisis led to a huge upswing in the number of women and children held in immigrant detention. Many of them were and still are seeking asylum from their native countries in Central America.
Few of them had legal representation to navigate the complicated laws to get relief -- it's not guaranteed in immigration proceedings, even for unaccompanied children. Women and children are far more likely to be ordered for deportation if they do not have representation, according to a 2015 report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The pro bono effort to help families in detention started with Artesia, where the American Immigration Lawyers Association organized volunteers who traveled there, usually on their own dime, to meet with the women and children, and help them present their cases.
Collopy canceled a vacation in September 2014 -- it would have been her first in about a year and a half -- to go to Artesia instead.
"As someone who has the legal skills and the language skills to help these women and children, I feel that morally I have to do my part by going down there and using those skills to help them," Collopy said.
The Artesia facility closed, but family detention moved elsewhere: to new centers in Dilley and Karnes, Texas. The pro bono work moved there, too, and the CARA Project was announced on March 31, 2015.
Its work hasn’t stopped since, despite some legal and policy
steps toward reducing family detention. The administration is continuing to back family immigrant detention, although it has worked to get women and children out of the centers more quickly, and might make other reforms.
CARA is a joint project of four groups: Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"To me, this is the front lines of refugee and asylum work, so it makes sense to me to be here." CARA managing attorney Katie Shepherd
They arrange for attorneys, paralegals, social workers, translators, medical workers, teachers and others to go to Texas for a week or more to assist families in detention. Volunteers arrive on Sundays and go through a training and then are in the detention center around 7:30 a.m. on Monday, telling women what CARA does, helping them fill out paperwork and getting their stories. If attorneys believe the women have a case for credible or reasonable fear to pursue asylum -- as they say is most often the case -- they prepare them for interviews with immigration agents, and help them appeal if they are denied.
More than 90 percent of women they work with are approved to move forward with their asylum claims after their credible fear interview, said Katie Shepherd, the managing attorney of the CARA project at Dilley.
She and a handful of other CARA staffers live in a house together in Dilley -- another works down the road -- and work most of the time: half days on Sundays, and often 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. every weekday. It's not just the long hours that are difficult for both volunteers and staff, it's also the pace and the number of cases, Shepherd said.
"I look at the volunteers sometimes by Friday and I'm like, 'Holy crap, is that what I look like every day?'" she said. "We put them to work, for sure."
She came to Dilley for the first time last September, while she was based in Houston and working in private practice. She started going to the detention center about every other week, and started working for CARA full time in December.
"To me, this is the front lines of refugee and asylum work, so it makes sense to me to be here," Shepherd said. "This is why I went to law school; this is the population I want to represent."
The groups estimated that lawyers had donated nearly 20,600 hours, which works out to about $5.15 million in billable hours at a rate of $250 per hour, a number they came to using the median from a 2011 study from the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Non-lawyers worked about 21,400 hours and, assuming an average pay of $75 per hour — likely low for some of the volunteers, according to organizers — donated an estimated $1.6 million in time.
The need still outweighs the amount of assistance, though, Abella said.
"With all of the resources we're trying to pull together to this effort," he said, "it never seems that we have enough people helping, because it's way too many people [being detained]."
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