A Witness at the Mexican Border

After a week interviewing detainees, Daniel Hartnett’s return blocked by ICE
Isabel Saavedra, left, an attorney working for the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, with Daniel Hartnett, a certified social worker from Springs who volunteered with the project last month.

While many people who work in the schools were enjoying their final days of summer vacation, Daniel Hartnett, a bilingual social worker at the East Hampton Middle School, spent the first days of September helping immigrant women and children detained at the United States-Mexico border. 

Volunteering with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, Mr. Hartnett conducted 13 social emotional evaluations of long-term detainees at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Tex., during the week he was there. “I wrote reports for attorneys to either use immediately or put in a file to use down the line,” Mr. Hartnett said. He had hoped to return, but received notice yesterday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had revoked his visiting privileges.

The center, run for I.C.E. by a private prison contractor, was opened in December in response to a massive increase last year of illegal crossings at the southern border, particularly women with children.

The Dilley facility is the largest family detention center in the country. Part of President Obama’s package of 2014 executive actions on immigration, it now houses about 2,000 detainees, some who have been there almost since its opening and some who are processed and released or deported in a matter of weeks. It was designed to send the message to other families considering the difficult journey from Central America that illegal entry into the United States did not guarantee freedom — those detained are first in line for “expedited removal.”

The CARA project was set up by four nonprofits — the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. CARA works to ensure that the detainees at Dilley receive competent legal representation and also pushes to end family detentions “by leading aggressive advocacy and litigation efforts to challenge unlawful asylum, detention, and deportation policies,” according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association website.

The nonprofits fund three full-time staff members in Dilley. One of them is Isabel Saavedra, an East Hampton High School graduate and lawyer who was admitted to the New York bar in August. Mr. Hartnett has known her since she was a new immigrant herself as a child in East Hampton.

Her own experiences inspired her to become an immigration lawyer. “I entered as an unaccompanied minor,” she said. Her parents came here first, then sent for Ms. Saavedra and her younger sister when they had saved enough money. The children came on visitors’ visas, but overstayed. “I was undocumented from March of 1999 until November of 2008, when I finally got my green card,” Ms. Saavedra said.

Mr. Hartnett said she and her sister were standouts in school. “Isabel was a superlative.” Her parents did not speak English, and when it came time to apply for college, he helped her with her applications. She went to the State University at Old Westbury and graduated from law school at the University of Massachusetts. She arrived in Dilley three months ago, right after passing the bar.

“Being down here in Texas is like being in the emergency room for doctors,” she said. Volunteering attorneys, social workers, psychiatrists, and the like from around the country are trained on Sundays, then work Monday through Friday “dealing with the most pertinent cases on the docket,” Mr. Hartnett said. The information they collect goes into a database for the next crop of pro bono attorneys to use.

Ms. Saavedra works 15-hour days, six days a week, managing the pro bono attorneys. “This is the best experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

During his time in Texas, Mr. Hartnett met women and children fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse, and economic hardship, most from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, where gang activity is epidemic. Despite the center’s proximity to Mexico, “I didn’t meet a Mexican while I was there,” he said. The majority of those detained are Central Americans who crossed Mexico to seek asylum in the U.S.

Many of the children he met were anxious and depressed and preoccupied. They and their mothers had been separated from husbands, fathers, and older sons or brothers with whom they had traveled. “There were high levels of trauma, and signs of post-traumatic stress.”

One woman he interviewed had been threatened by her boyfriend, a gang member, before deciding to flee to the U.S. Another had failed her first “credible fear” interview. The interview, a chance to make her case for being a legitimate asylum-seeker with a real fear of returning to her home country, could have secured her conditional release on a bond or with an ankle monitor. “She kept saying ‘May 30, May 30,’ ” Mr. Hartnett said, but she was otherwise difficult to understand, even for someone like himself who is fluent in Spanish.

He came to realize that May 30 was the date that gang members — who had previously killed her brother for refusing to sell drugs for them — had broken into her house, told her she had to take her brother’s place, and taken her picture. “She had a speech and language disability,” said Mr. Hartnett, a clinical social worker, and had failed her first interview because of it. His conclusion after evaluating her: “She was significantly impeded in her ability to expressively utilize language in an interview.” After his evaluation, and perhaps because of it, she and her child were released to a family member.

A federal judge in California ruled in July that the Obama administration’s detention of women and children in secure facilities violated a 1997 settlement on the treatment of immigrant children caught crossing the borders illegally. Hearings for detainees are being ramped up in response, with an effort to process them within 20 days, but there are still more than 2,000 at the Dilley center. “There are 1,800 women with children detained — nursing mothers, children as young as 18 months,” Ms. Saavedra said.

“The reality is that people are being incarcerated,” Mr. Hartnett said. “This is a prison for young mothers and little children. There are guards; their movements are monitored. It’s pretty extraordinary. This is how we are responding to this refugee crisis at our border.” Mr. Hartnett is not the first mental health professional to have his visiting privileges revoked, and he believes such actions are violating the detainees’ rights to adequate representation.

The CARA project has lodged a series of complaints about the “inhumane conditions” at the Dilley center, including inadequate medical care. 

“Everybody I met had at least one child 12 or under,” he said, and every child he met was sick, mostly with coughs. While the center has playgrounds, schools, and a medical clinic, mothers told him they would wait five hours at the clinic without being seen, or, when they were seen, would be told to “just drink water.”

While the people detained at the southern border are not fleeing outright war, there are “geopolitical forces at play that have created an economic, social, and political situation that is forcing people to flee,” Mr. Hartnett said, pointing to gangs, corrupt governments, rampant violence, and social upheaval.

“If they claim they have a fear of returning, they’re asylum-seekers and refugees,” Ms. Saavedra said. But the U.S. government, she said, “refuses to refer to them as refugees.” Instead, “we’re treating them like criminals.”


Outside the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Tex.