The Courage of Mothers in Family Detention

Author: on May 12, 2017


Over the past two years, hundreds of volunteers have given up a week or more of their lives to help nearly 30,000 mothers and more than 33,000 children detained by the federal government as they seek asylum as our laws allow. Pro bono attorneys, joined by translators and legal assistants, help them prepare to make their case for protection under U.S. laws. We asked our volunteers to recall the mother who they met in detention whose story stayed with them most powerfully. Here are a few of their stories. Below this post is information on how you can get involved.

“My 22-year-old daughter and I volunteered at Dilley together.  Hearing the mother’s stories through my own daughter (my interpreter) was particularly compelling.  But for some reason, the stories that touched me most deeply were those of mothers fleeing to save their adolescent boys from recruitment by the gangs.  We could see that these young boys—against almost impossible odds—wanted to be strong and protect their mothers. One mother and son in particular stuck with me. We determined that the 10-year-old boy’s testimony would be integral to the credible fear interview, so my daughter asked him to explain what happened.  He sat straight with his shoulders square, his chin up, and a resolute countenance on his face and he described the way the gang members tried to coerce him to assist them with extorting shop keepers.  But when it came to the part where the gang members followed him to his mother’s tamale stand and threatened to harm her if he didn’t comply, a tear slipped down his cheek, then another, and then another, until he collapsed into her arms and they cried together.  As we left the interview room, I wiped his tears up off the table.” – Laura, July 24-29, 2016

“A mother from Guatemala only spoke an indigenous language, so she was struggling to fill out the paperwork. Another mother and her three energetic teenage daughters were all finished with their paperwork, but they stayed behind to help the indigenous woman, as the youngest daughter knew a little of her language. The mother spoke to her daughter in Spanish, explaining how to fill out each document, and her daughter translated this into the indigenous language for this woman. They laughed and joked and asked for help when they were all confused about the English-only documents. The young daughter was patient, helpful, and treated this confused woman with such respect and care. You see so many strong, brave, and caring mothers coming through these facilities; for me, it’s so beautiful to see the ways in which these enviable qualities are passed on to their children.” – Erin, long-term volunteer July, 2016-present

“’If you don’t do what we say, we are going to burn your children to death in front of you in a barrel.’ The young mother sitting across the desk from me remained dispassionate as she recounted this threat, made against her only weeks before by members of one of the most dangerous transnational criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere. Immediately after receiving the threat, and with little more than the clothes on their backs, she left the only home she and her two young sons had ever known and set out on the harrowing journey to the U.S. Instead of refuge, they found themselves locked away. What first struck me about the way my client recounted this gruesome threat was the lack of emotion in her face. It took only a second for me to realize, though, that the brave face she put on was for the benefit of her 11-year-old son sitting quietly next to her, but there was one giveaway to her true feelings: the quiet look of utter terror in her gaze, which was directed only at me. After the consultation ended, I shook hands with both her and her son, and as they walked out of the room I bent down to whisper in his ear, ‘Your mom is a hero. Don’t ever forget that.’” – Brian

“I remember the sound of her wailing when she spoke of having to leave her young son behind in order to save her teenage daughter. She couldn’t afford to bring them both and she feared her daughter would die before she could come up with enough money for them all to cross together. ‘Eso es lo que me duele’ she wailed, ‘This is what hurts me.’ I remember the feel of tears stinging my own eyes and a wail of my own threatening to escape from my mouth as I thought of having to leave my own young son behind where he would be in danger. I remember how she and her daughter clung to each other, filled with fear and strength and hope that the family could all be safely together soon. When we were done with our session I wanted to sit and cry for a while. But I had to swallow it, take a deep breath, and call in the next mother and child.” – Ashley, September 2016

“A mother came from El Salvador to the United States with her son who was then 11-years-old. The mother had been approached by a gang member who informed her that her son was now old enough to start selling drugs for them. Reflecting on all she had seen and lived, the mom made the decision that her son needed to leave El Salvador to live with his biological father in the U.S. She planned to send him with another man who was going to make the journey. As she contemplated sending him on the journey with a stranger, she felt complete anguish about what could happen to him along the way. She sold the small plot of land that was all she owned to be able to travel with him. She had previously had a miscarriage so considered her son to be a gift from God. She knew this would be her only child and sending her him on the dangerous journey alone was inconceivable to her. I heard many stories during my volunteer stints, but this one stands out to me as Mother’s Day approaches. The complete and utter black hole of anguish that she knew she would feel if her son died before reaching his father safely was so palpable.” – Mary, 2014 and 2015 volunteer

“There is a particular woman who stands out for me. She fled her home country with her husband and two older children many years ago due to governmental persecution.  Their two younger children were born in a refugee camp where they spent a few years before they were able to get to the U.S.  Her husband was not allowed in the “family detention” center and he was jailed elsewhere in Texas. We worked with an interpreter by phone for a few days to prepare for the Credible Fear Interview.  As I listened to her story and met her sons and daughters ages 2-11, I was impressed with their sense of family, faith, and peace in the midst of all of their trauma and suffering.  As we ended our prep time, she raised her right hand, lifted her eyes to heaven and exclaimed, ‘I live every day to praise God.’” – Bernardine

“Possibly the fiercest mother I met was a 19-year-old woman with a 3-year-old son.  She had a second grade education and her first language was an indigenous language, K’iche’ (Quiche).  Due to her work at a hotel in Guatemala, she had learned Spanish and became the de facto Spanish interpreter for the other Mayan mothers in Dilley.  She was smart and determined, but her case was stuck because she couldn’t fill out the English language asylum application.  With help from the CARA project, she held her own in front of an immigration judge with a notoriously low rate of granting asylum cases, and finally won the peace and security she sought in the U.S. for herself and her child.” – Kim

“The middle-aged woman with blank eyes and emotionless face sitting across the desk from me began to weep and heave with sobs as she described watching her husband and oldest son being gunned down by gang members on the street where their family lived. Sitting next to her was her only living child, a mere boy on the verge of becoming a teen.  The boy gently tried to comfort his mother.  The terror in his eyes pleaded with me, as if to say: help us, we have nowhere else to go.  He seemed to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders, wanting desperately to be strong for his mother, but so vulnerable himself.” – Carolyn, July and November, 2016

How can you help?

If you’re someone who has volunteered and wants to share the story of a mother who you met in family detention, please consider commenting on this blog post or on a Facebook post linking to this piece – that way your experience can be shared and lifted up as well. Please do not include details that would be sufficient to identify the mother or her child(ren) who may still be in a vulnerable position.

Everyone can lift this up by sharing it with their networks and friends, let people know about the courageous moms you have met and why family detention must end.

If you’re moved to volunteer yourself, please check out the volunteer opportunities to serve those in family detention.