The South Texas Family Residential Center here in Dilley, Texas is surrounded by metal fencing, video cameras, and tall light poles that you can see from miles away at night. The country’s largest immigration detention facility, it sprawls 50 acres and is comprised of 2,400 beds in a series of large barracks-style trailers which look eerily similar to pictures of the Japanese-American “relocation centers” during World War II.

I met more than 25 detained women and their children here. All are from El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala, and all but two suffered from some form of gang violence, severe domestic violence or in many cases, a combination of both. I heard stories from people who witnessed the murder of family members, and who themselves were subjected to unspeakable violent crime without protection from law enforcement.

Through the CARA Family Detention Project, I spoke with these women and their children to help them prepare for credible fear interviews. This is the first step – and possibly last – for these immigrants claiming asylum after being placed in expedited removal proceedings.

I will never forget the woman who in the middle of our meeting started to cry frantically, and the young daughter in her lap who began to do the same. I looked at my interpreter who also began to cry, holding her hands over her mouth momentarily, before articulating in English the detailed account of a brutal rape. I took an early lunch after that meeting and as I pulled off the highway at what looked like the end of the Earth, I wiped away my own tears.

The detention of families claiming asylum is inhumane.  And yet there is talk of expanding family detention notwithstanding that existing facilities which are meant to hold families, like this one, are already at capacity.

All the women I interviewed discussed how when they were first apprehended or after turning themselves in, they were split up from any men or teenage boys they were traveling with and then placed in what they referred to as the “ice box” for a matter of hours or overnight. The ice box is a small space with a shared, non-private toilet that was, as the name implies, very cold. From there the women and children were taken to what they refer to as the “dog cage,” a large area divided into smaller areas by metal fencing. The families stayed there for up to three or four days — enduring bitterly cold conditions with inadequate food and limited hygiene until transported to the Dilley, Texas facility. They typically stay in Dilley for two or three weeks before being deported or released to family or a shelter.

For vulnerable populations, detention even for limited periods of time can do real harm. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics: “The act of detention or incarceration itself is associated with poor health outcomes, higher rates of psychological distress and suicidality making the situation for already vulnerable women and children even worse.”

The great majority of families at Dilley pass their credible fear interviews, thereby calling into question the necessity, not to mention legality, of automatic detention which is not only expensive but makes legal representation a real challenge.  The New York Times reported when Dilley was opened in 2014 that the detention facility was presented by officials “as a deterrent to border crossings.”  Detaining refugee families for a few weeks as a deterrent is troubling, but not as troubling as what appears to be happening on the ground now.

With the Attorney General’s effort this month to curtail asylum claims based on gang violence and domestic abuse, I am concerned that detainees at Dilley are going to find it increasingly difficult to pass their credible fear interviews.  Indeed, just over the course of my week at the facility, I became aware of an alarming growth of deportations.

In my next post in this series, I will:

  • Address what is driving immigration to the U.S., and the potentially catastrophic change in asylum policy demanded by the Attorney General.
  • Share details from my 30 minutes in the “court” trailer, where I tried to appeal the findings of a negative credible fear interview by video conference to an immigration judge.


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Photo of William C. Silverman William C. Silverman

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer…

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer lawyers and ensuring widespread participation in these projects.

Bill has robust private and public sector experience and a strong criminal and civil background. He has worked extensively on government investigations and white collar criminal matters, as well as complex civil litigation in federal and state courts. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he led criminal investigations, conducted trials and handled Second Circuit appeals.

Throughout his career, Bill has dedicated himself to the promotion of equal access to justice through pro bono service, particularly in the area of family court, anti-trafficking, and immigration.

Bill spearheaded a partnership among several law firms, corporations and the New York City Family Court to provide free legal advice to pro se litigants. The New York City Family Court Volunteer Attorney Program now has more than 400 volunteer attorneys from 40 major firms and corporations. Bill also helped build a coalition of organizations in a successful effort to secure additional Family Court judges in New York. He is now part of an effort spearheaded by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to simplify the New York Court System from 11 trial courts to three.

Bill serves as counsel to the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. In that capacity he has been a strong advocate for changes in the law and public policy to protect victims of human trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice. He also represents individual clients in this area, including a successful federal lawsuit brought on behalf of a trafficking victim against her traffickers. For his work, he was named by domestic violence nonprofit Sanctuary For Families as one of “New York’s New Abolitionists.”

Bill has spoken at numerous conferences and events, including New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearings on Civil Legal Services and the American Bar Association’s Equal Justice Conference. In 2014, he attended a meeting at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and other policymakers on the need for access to legal services in immigration proceedings.

Bill has been recognized for his public service with the Abely Pro Bono Leadership Award from Sanctuary For Families and Columbia Law School (2019); the Special Leadership Award for All-Around Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility & the Law from City & State Reports (2015); the Commitment to Justice Award for Outstanding Partner from inMotion (2008); and the Matthew G. Leonard Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Achievement from MFY Legal Services (2007).

Outside of his work at the firm, Bill serves on various committees and non-profit boards. Bill is currently chairman of the Fund for Modern Courts, a non-partisan citizen organization devoted to improving New York State courts, and is formerly chairman of Legal Information For Families Today (LIFT), an organization devoted to unrepresented litigants in Family Court.