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Hugs and Capitalism: My Week at a Women's Detention Center

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

Flatness. Sweeping plains. John Wayne’s ghost may emerge on a horse. It’s Southwest Texas. It is south of south. I am crunched in the backseat of a Toyota Corolla as the acreage whizzes past me in the tiny window. I snap photos of cylindrical hay bales, dairy cows, long horns and cool, Mexican-style ranch houses. The others tease me, but it has been a while since I have seen this much sky and farmland and the horizon. I think of Jimi Hendrix’s declaration, “Sky church is open.”

Beside me sits Rachel, a twenty-something-ish attorney from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in front of me Marirose, my contemporary and a super funny interpreter (also an immigration attorney) from San Fran, and in the driver’s seat Kathryn, a San Antonian and our volunteer coordinator. We are the latest in a year-long queue of volunteer attorneys who, with the help of Raices, descend on this facility. Flying in from opposite coasts, we each take a week off from our respective jobs, pay our own way. (Shout out to our gofundme supporters!) We have also endured five modules of training, taken two quizzes that we must pass with a grade of at least ninety percent. One sentence in our lessons tells us to avoid hugging these freedom-deprived, harm-fleeing, asylum-seeking souls. Ugh.

As we sail down U.S. 181, the discussion centers around our destination and what the conditions are. Kathryn must be tired of going through this with a new wave of volunteers each week but she doesn’t show it. She is kind and energetic. “Just because things appear nice, they aren’t. It’s the system that’s messed up. Remember that.” I tuck that tip away into my cerebellum and continuing voyeuring the landscape.

Blah beige mechanical monsters, praying-mantis-like oil rigs, punctuate the horizon, chugging and digging for fossil fuels. In the distance, flames shoot from tall towers: natural gas plants.

After the one-hour drive, we hook a right onto the block-long road to the women’s detention center, which is stocked with approximately twelve hundred migrant women. Like a revival tent in the middle of farm land, the one-story structure rises slightly from the land. Spider-like its buildings shoot in all direction. It resembles an elementary school, which is interesting considering it used to imprison immigrant families. Now, it’s only women.

Across the street is not much. Except another oil rig.

Profits. Capitalism. I get it. I drive a Mini Cooper. Not a hybrid. I fly on Airbuses. I heat my home.

Not lost on me, though, is that the oil well stands practically next to the detention center. An acre or two away. Side by side. My brain registers this. Not the juxtaposition but the parallelism. Two kinds of questionable sources of profit. One formed from dead organisms, the other from living humans.

We pour out of the tin can and onto the already blazing asphalt, and huddle around the trunk. Grabbing our lunch boxes (we will be there for 11 hours) briefcases and totes, we juggle all and march toward the double glass doors of the detention center. We are buzzed in, then put our cell phones in lockers and trade in our letters of good standing and photo i.d.’s in for red badges to clip on our clothes.

In the lobby, it’s cheery. Painted white, it features flat-screens upon which slides of optimistic and gentle reminders of policies and rules flash. A horde of folks enter. Employees. The center is run by GeoGroup, a subcontractor for ICE. The workers sport royal blue polos and khaki pants. They seem happy and do not carry weapons. Only walkie-talkies. There are so many. Employees. So many that I think that GeoGroup must employ the whole town or county. Looking at the slides, even I consider applying. Great benefits. 401K. Health insurance. Employee of the month prizes.

Along with four volunteers already there and four or five Raices legal assistants, we pile our laptops, lunches, even jugs of water onto the belt to the x-ray machine. Down a corridor festooned with bright cubist posters, we amble and take a left before it ends at another hall. Beyond our turn, I see through glass-paned windows a grass courtyard or playground. Remnants of family detention.

Like ants without crumbs, we single-file it through the snack machine room in which we cannot snack, nibble or drink, then enter our home for the next eleven hours, a relatively large rectangular room. After piling our crap onto a regulation three-by-five table, we each take a small table or go into a handful of rooms to await our pro bono clients.

In the center of the room and against a plate glass window sits a desk and behind it a small, almost-kind Hispanic woman, Ms. Esperanza.* She holds the cards, the keys, everything. Several Raices employees warn us not to hover by Ms. Esperanza’s desk to request a client or we will anger her. Duly noted.

Behind her through the window, I spot adult women of various ages wearing primary colored tee shirts: red, blue, green. Each color we later learn refers to the building in which she is housed.

We dare not approach Ms. Esperanza and wait like girl scouts to have a client called. Interestingly, though, Kathryn asks if we requested our first client. We are not sure how to approach Ms. Esperanza in order to summon said client without hovering. Perhaps we can wave a flag. Or wink. Eventually, though, Ms. Esperanza yells “Parker,” a name to which I do not answer as it is my maiden name, not my given name.

“Oh sorry. Yes?” I finally respond. Already I violate the spoken or unspoken rules. I envision myself in a kelly green tee, jeans and regulation shoes without laces. I do not wish to anger GeoGroup employees nor ICE, who, we are told hide in a neighboring room. I made a promise to Steven that I would not sass ICE and get thrown out of the prison, even though that is the goal of most.


Our first client approaches hesitatingly. She’s not sure if we are her legal reps. Neither are we. We learn we are. Black-haired, cinnamon-hued and young, in small, shy peeps, Suzie* relates bits of her story. In short, she escaped Cuba. Because that’s what Cubans do. They escape or flee Cuba precisely because they are told they can’t. Until 2017, the U.S. paroled (allowed) Cubans in and, one year after entry, they could apply for green cards. Not no more.

Suzie passed her CFI or Credible Fear Interview, which is one hurdle closer towards being released from detention. It also means that she will soon receive a notice to appear in immigration court where she can ask the judge for asylum. Still, Suzie is squarely a prisoner. She may be able to get out on parole by convincing a deportation officer that she is worthy. And, has a place to go. Or she may have to pay a hefty bond.

Our job is to have a charla or chat with her about the next steps and to fill out forms that will keep Raices up to date on her status in the gauntlet towards exiting this prison.

I feel like we are on a reality speed-dating show. Only freedom is the prize. The brightly colored shirts sit around the room with other speed-daters or advisors and translators who lean in close to capture valuable information.

We shake Suzie’s hand gently and try to make her smile. We joke, “We’re not allowed to hug.”

Only getting snippets of the stories is frustrating for Marirose and I as we are both full-on immigration attorneys, and we are used to learning the whole story, sad as it is, and using our creativity to win asylum cases for clients. But we will do what is necessary to get them out.

Surprisingly, day one drags on as long periods of waiting douse our enthusiasm. We feel underused but hear that this can happen. The waiting. We inform Kathryn that we want to do more, maybe write declarations of appeal to immigration judges. She makes a note.

Like rats, we scrounge bites of energy bars or bananas or flatbread here and there, only to be reprimanded by Ms. Esperanza. At lunchtime, we take our lunchboxes and go back out into the lobby to eat our salads. Stare at the flat-screens again. We do the same at dinner time.

Finally, at 8:30 p.m. we fall out of the glass double-doors into the warm South Texas air. I am beyond tired. I didn’t sleep well last night and just want to dive into the cool sheets of the Courtyard Marriott bed in San Antonio. The four of us pile into the Corolla again and begin the hour-drive back to San Antonio. After getting dropped off at the Raices office, Marirose and I, order a Lyft and make our way back to the hotel. We bee-line to the bar. She orders a double-shot of Bourbon, neat. I do the same with Grand Marnier. We hit the beds hard. Before we know it, the 6 a.m. alarm goes off and we must do it again. Go to the detention center. But this time, I will tote a Venti dark roast and stretch it out for half of the day.


The next three days pick up with an unexpected ferocity. We are hit with a full schedule, real, lawyer-like work, and, best of all, we are told we can, in fact, hug. After all.

In my head, I hear angels singing and church bells ringing. We can hug! We can hug! Marirose and I are now mamacitas free to hug temporary adopted daughters.

The first woman, like it or not, will get two, full-on, embraces. Plural. Thankfully, she welcomes it. In fact, dare I say that the squeeze is almost as helpful as the legal help. I watch as depressed women are transformed into happy simply by human contact and the notion that we really do care. Are they not getting that in detention? I can’t help but think that they are not.

They are sponges. Our hugs are liquid love. They soak them up.

As we prepare to work on another case, we are yanked aside by a Raices worker. “You must prepare a medical declaration for this woman and get her signature on the media release.” The urgency is palpable. This beautiful soul is from the Congo, has uterine cancer and hasn’t seen a doctor in her two months in detention. We are stunned but gather ourselves and put on a brave face. We know (everyone knows) that uterine cancer is most likely a death sentence.

Will she die in here? Not if we can help it.

We take the forms, gear up for a translation kerfuffle. Maria* speaks Lingala, one language of the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), the other being French. I speak English and conversational Spanish and three sentences of Arabic. Marirose is trilingual, speaking English, Italian and Spanish. The form we are presented is in Spanish. We will have to dial-up a Lingala translator. The speaker phone is not working, so we must do this through a receiver. Marirose translates the form to English. I communicate this with the translator on the phone then hand the receiver to Maria who listens to the Lingala version. Maria answers the question and hands the receiver back to me. I give the answer in English to Marirose who writes the answers in Spanish on the form.

Are you still with me?

Maria discloses that upon entering the U.S., she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Between languages, we steel ourselves. Maria has not seen a doctor since entering this facility. Two months ago. Maria lifts up her shirt to reveal lumps in her armpits. Has it spread? We are not doctors, but we know that lumps do not belong under arms. Maria says that the nurse at the facility advised her to put warm compresses on the lumps.

Soon, her story will appear in a Huffington Post article, and we are grateful that we can play such a small role in getting it out there.

Like human magnets, we continue to attract medical cases.

A beautiful Venezuelan, Theresa,* arrives at our table. She holds one hand to her head. Behind glasses, her eyes tear. Theresa reveals that in Venezuela, she had a brain tumor removed. The tumor had already spread to her jaw and broke it, then a metal plate was implanted. Now, Theresa has migraines and sleeps only two hours a night. She tells the detention center nurse this and is given ibuprofen. She asks to see a neurologist and is sent to a psychologist.

On and on these stories come until the fourth day. On Day Four in the middle of the day, our clients stop coming, though Ms. Esperanza says that she called them. The clients of private attorneys breeze in and out. For four hours we twiddle our thumbs, roam around the room and bother the other volunteers. Marirose and I and others too fear that this is a tactic used by ICE to discourage the volunteer attorneys. It is working. Mentally and physically we have poured ourselves into these cases. We are exhausted. We are frustrated. Our lawyerly guts believe that due process is being subverted.

We are given the option of not returning tomorrow. We take the option. Part of me feels terribly guilty. But I am at the end of my emotional rope. Physically, I am drained. It’s not Raices’ fault. It’s not our fault. I am certain that behind the curtain, ICE pulls the strings that slow us down.

Remember: detainees equal profits.

Weird. The taxes that we private attorneys pay to Uncle Sam will finance the detention of these women, our pro bono clients. For whom we seek freedom. So that they can seek and find outside counsel and eventually obtain employment authorization and contribute to the same effed-up system. If your mind is blown, you are in good company. As I write this, I see a hound dog chasing its tail. It spins around in circles on America’s front porch.


A final word about hugs. Warm embraces. Sympathetic squeezes. Once we begin to dispense freely this best form of human contact, we see women transported to better places. At least internally. Their smiles and laughter tell us so. This alone is worth the journey behind the locked doors of detention.

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Wow. Just wow.

You are doing amazing work, Nettie. Their stories are heartbreaking, especially the medical cases, like *Theresa. How lucky they were to have made your acquaintance, if only for a short time period. Keep the faith and thank you for your service to such a vulnerable, yet amazingly resilient, population of our sisters and brothers from places far away.


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