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MAMAs Do! Pro Bono Work at Karnes Family Detention Center

Hundreds of immigrant women and children are held in a jail facility in Karnes City, Texas, just two hours southeast of Austin. They are seeking asylum in the United States and are held in jail until successfully passing the hurdle of a credible fear interview. They have no right to free legal representation and many get deported because they fall through the cracks of our broken system. These women and children are fleeing gang violence, domestic violence, and sexual violence. The MAMAs have shown support by visiting Karnes on regular and ongoing pro bono trips to help these women.

George Bush began the policy of detaining asylum-seeking families in 2006 in the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas. As a law student, my first assignment was to interview a family of Iraqi Christians who had fled persecution and who were detained with their infant daughter. She was wearing a prison-issued onesie and had not been outside in days. Her mother asked me if I would sneak her baby out with me when I finished the interview. It was in that moment I decided on a career working for justice for immigrants. Then Obama ended family detention in 2009 and we thought the awful experiment was over.

Between 2009 and 2014, gang violence was on the rise in the northern triangle of Central America: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Today, the gang control most neighborhoods and run unchecked by law enforcement, raping, extorting, conscripting youth, and murdering with impunity. Women and children are particularly vulnerable and the U.S. saw the numbers of asylum seekers rise in recent years. As a response to the so-called surge and in an effort to be tough on border security, family detention reared its ugly head again. The women and children rely on local pro bono attorneys to help them because without our assistance and oversight, injustice abounds. My first client at Karnes was a seven year old with brain cancer who was held for over a month with no medical care.

In order to be released, mom must pass an hour long credible fear interview, proving that she is eligible for asylum because she has been persecuted on account of a protected ground: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. She must tell a coherent, consistent, and chronological story, and must understand the asylum laws. It is a high bar and without help, many fail and get deported.

On a monthly basis, MAMAs have joined me on one-day (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) pro bono trips to Karnes to serve this vulnerable population. The training is done in the car ride down and non-Spanish speakers are assigned interpreters or given a language line. Volunteer attorneys meet with one to two women during their day to prepare them for their credible fear interview or to help prepare for an appeal of a denial. It is a rewarding, fulfilling, heartbreaking, and necessary job, and I am so proud of the MAMAs for stepping up and visiting Karnes.

If you have not had a chance to join us yet, please email me: to be added to the regular invite list for our monthly trips.

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