Keeping Families Together Is Not Enough: On the Frontlines of the Border Crisis

As Alliance attorneys offer their time and expertise to support ongoing legal efforts at the border, we are sharing their personal perspectives. Here, Elise Weinberg, policy attorney at the Alliance, talks about her time at Karnes Detention Center interviewing detained mothers and children.

I pulled up to the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) office in San Antonio, Texas with a sack lunch, a notebook, and little idea of what to expect when I crossed the threshold. A few weeks prior, I answered the call to assist at the border and signed up to help mothers and children with their asylum cases at Karnes Detention Center, one of three family detention centers in the United States where mothers and children are detained together.

The days were difficult. We spent over ten hours each day in a windowless room for four days straight.

I met dozens of mothers and children who escaped violence and danger in their home country and were seeking refuge in the United States. No one I spoke with was familiar with the asylum process and its corresponding legal jargon. How could they be? They left their home country quickly – not considering whether they would meet the specific “particular social group” standard often required in asylum claims.

I met children who were persecuted by gangs and mothers who escaped the violent hands of their husbands. I met families fleeing Venezuela because of their political opinion and others seeking asylum because of their sexual orientation. Some mothers were pregnant–in fact, I met with a detained woman who was eight months pregnant.

It was challenging to see these mothers and hear all they have experienced. We started with the seemingly simple question of why they were seeking asylum. Often, I was the first person with whom they had shared their story, and my questions forced them to relive their trauma. Sometimes I had to prepare them for the fact that, given new administration policies, the persecution they suffered is not likely to suffice. In other situations, all I could offer was some comfort as they struggled with the experience of detention.

Without a doubt, the most challenging part of this work was meeting the detained children and witnessing all they’ve endured. They were young, sick and lethargic. Irrespective of their age, they clung to their mothers—the only source of comfort in a locked facility far from home. Some children cried endlessly. Others comforted their mothers or tried to distract themselves by playing with the detention center staff. The stress and fear of detention was evident in all of the children I met.

After my decision to assist at the border, I struggled with anxiety regarding my ability to help these families at such a vulnerable time. Could I serve them in a meaningful way? In the end, though, I found it difficult to leave these mothers and children behind. Meeting with them and hearing about what they are going through was an experience so far removed from my everyday reality.

Some would consider the mothers and children I met to be lucky. They were kept together and not separated from each other like other families. But keeping families together is not enough. Holding families in detention centers is punishment, and the experience adds trauma and pain.

One mother that I met with said, “I know many people don’t believe many things we tell them and until you are in that environment you are unlikely to understand.” I will likely never experience what they went through, but I am lucky to have had the opportunity to meet these families and I hold their stories close.

The mothers I met with came to the United States because they were fleeing violence and persecution. They came here because they want their children to be safe from the danger at home. There is no better example of a good parent and we should treat them as such.