This week, four immigration attorneys from California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation are volunteering with RAICES at a family detention center in Karnes to provide legal assistance to detained fathers seeking asylum in the United States. Throughout the week, they will be sharing their observations, experiences, and thoughts from working with these individuals and families.
Day 1 – Cries Heard Down the Hall
A father should never have to apologize for his child acting like a child. In the afternoon, we met with a man carrying his two-year old son in his arms. The man was limping because he had fractured his toes jumping off a train on the way from Central America to the United States. Holding his child closely, he proceeds to tell us his story – about his decision to embark on this dangerous journey to flee the gang violence threatening him and his son on a daily basis. As he talks, his child begins to squirm in his arms as any normal two-year old child would. The child reaches his little arm out at one of our female attorneys and says, “Mama.” The father immediately apologizes to the attorney and tells his son that she is not his mother. “Mama,” he says again. The father can only apologize.
Unfortunately, scenes like these are commonplace in Karnes County Residential Center. Only fathers and their children are detained at this facility, typically after they have been reunited following their forced and lengthy separation by Border Patrol upon arriving in the country. During our time in this facility, we met with fathers who described the pain of having their children torn from their arms by the very country to which they came seeking a safer life. Many of them are now fighting deportation orders that they voluntarily signed feeling that this was the only way they could be reunited with their children. Others were found to not be credible in explaining their fear of returning to their countries of origin, simply because they were forced to articulate these reasons while being what they describe as “sick” – feeling entirely disoriented due to suffering immense emotional and mental distress from losing their children upon arriving in the country.
Meetings between attorneys and fathers are punctuated by the frequent sound of children crying in other rooms, or even in the same room. When asked how his child was doing, one father replied that “he just has a cold, but everyone here has a cold.” Near the end of the day, one five-year old child was screaming incessantly as his father was trying to meet with an attorney. He was yelling, “quiero mi bicicleta” (“I want my bicycle”). One of the RAICES legal assistants, who are forced to double as both legal advocates and compassionate childcare professionals, got down to meet the boy at eye level. After securing a piece of chalk, she whispered something to him that made him smile while another RAICES legal assistant drew a heart on the chalkboard. A simple gesture, expressing to the boy that he’s loved and cared for. Later in the meeting, the legal assistants found a little sketch from the child – a butterfly with a smile. While the boy may not know butterflies have come to represent the immigration rights movement, the symbol of migration, freedom, and beauty reminded all the advocates in the room of the truth that while often trying, migration is in fact beautiful.