Dilley, TX is not the most exciting of towns. Texas which boasts of its German enclaves in the hill country, its beach retreats off the costal bend, its capital city is surrounded by a beautiful man-made diversion of the Colorado river called Lady Bird Lake (or Town Lake if you’ve lived in Austin longer than a decade), Texas does not boast about Dilley. It is a small town, its population is less than that of my high school, its roads like most Texas roads are filled with potholes and damages from the heavy trucks brought into the area from nearby fracking sites. Yet, on Saturday May 2nd this small town was visited by hundreds of people from across the state and the nation. People from as far away as Iowa, people that took buses from Dallas and Houston and Austin and San Antonio came for one purpose, to shut down the family detention center in Dilley, TX the largest family detention center in the nation.
It is important to begin this story with a bit of background. Family detention centers are set up as mini-prisons for people in the US seeking asylum, they are typically filled with women and children from Central America who came to the United States seeking refuge from the violence plaguing their nations. Everyone is “legal”. These detention centers house these women and children until their paperwork is finalized, they can hold these refugees for days, weeks, years – it all depends on how long the bureaucratic paper work takes to fill out and get approved.
“Free” housing for refugees sounds great on the surface, but when one looks closer, it gets really bad. If regular women’s prisons have cases of rape, imagine a prison-like place filled with women with little if any money, no guaranteed lawyer, who can’t speak English, and have no means to communicate with the outside world. Imagine that these prisons are privatized so they aren’t being closely monitored by the tax payers that pay on average $150-300 a day to house the individual refugees. Well there’s no need to use your imagination this is the reality we are facing. And we as a society are for the most part, completely ignorant of the issue. These families are coming to the US seeking safety from violence and are greeted with prison cells in the land of opportunity; they came to the land of the free to save their children and are regularly abused by a system set up to produce fear and suffering. It is for this reason hundred gathered, because there are people bold enough to believe that the US can truly be all it claims to be in its creed, in its Constitution, on the Statue of Liberty.
Back to May 2nd. I boarded a bus with some wonderful Presbyterians (I was the token Methodist) and began the 2.5 hour trip to Dilley, singing songs and talking about our lives, in truth I fell asleep because my body isn’t used to being awake before 9AM on a Saturday. I woke up when we hit San Antonio, then fell asleep again, and eventually we made it to Dilley. We were greeted by cacti and old fashioned brick facades on buildings in “downtown” Dilley. The journey to a city I had never been to before quickly became like a family reunion, Methodists and Presbyterians I knew from across the state were there, large groups from churches from across the state had shown up. This was about more than politics, it was an issue of humanity and even one of faith; human beings were suffering and we were not going to take it quietly. I was overjoyed to see my District Superintendent there, the United Methodist Women of the Rio Texas conference, many members of the Reconciling Ministries Network were also present, pastors from the “liberal/progressive” churches; what was odd was the absence of Methodists Renewal Movement people, for all their talk about “protecting the family unit” when it came to protecting families seeking refuge they were hard to find. But I digress. The overall diversity of the crowd was amazing, Democrats, Republicans, Communists, Libertarians, Socialists, Atheists, Christians, Black, White, Brown, Gay, Straight, Bi; it was truly a rainbow of humanity coming to fight injustice.
We began with lunch and a short rally. Then we began the march. It wasn’t too long of a walk, 2 miles from the downtown area to where there innocent women and children were. Along they way mellifluous chants and songs were raised. Fists in the air, sweat on brows, love kindling the fire that kept us marching. Love for people we may never meet, love of a land that isn’t living up to its responsibilities, love for the strangers we were walking alongside. “Asian, Latin, Black and White to smash racism we must unite!”, we yelled at the top of out lungs. And we had united, we knew our mission: to liberate these people enslaved by a system of injustice. “What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW! And if we don’t get it? SHUT IT DOWN!” My official protest marching shoes, Chacos, allowed the dust of the road to stick to my feet creating an unnatural ashy appearance soon flushed away as the Texas sun darkened my skin. “Tell me what Democracy looks like. THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” Democracy looks like like family, one unit working together for the good of all. These aren’t distant families I have no attachment to, when I was marching they became my family, when they came “under the care” of my country, they became my blood. And I will keep raising hell until they are treated with dignity.
Trucks honked their support, even though we must have been a great nuisance to them as they tried to go on their way. The owner of a giant Ford truck stuck his upper body out the window, his pale skin made red by hours of hard manual labor in the sun – “JUSTICE!” He yelled to us as he honked his horn. I imagine what parents who live in Dilley must think about their town being used for the separation of mothers from their children. Surely the people of Dilley want justice if for no other reason that to soothe their consciences as they kiss their own children goodnight without the hinderance of bars. A hinderance familiar to the mothers down the road we trod.
“There it is”, someone said, and they pointed to a large blue building with a Texas flag painted on it. As we got closer I could read the sign in front of it, I realized that this wasn’t the detention with its manicured lawn and small farm, its Texan pride painted on the building – this was the jail for criminals. The regular Dilley jail for people who had actually done something wrong. Right next door, on the other side of a tall barbed wire fence was a facility with a collection of small makeshift “houses” and a group of men with vehicles lined up to block our view of what they have called “The South Texas Family Residential Center”. Residential center makes it sound as if it’s a new luxury condo in a downtown urban area, but its a jail for innocent people next to a jail for criminals guarded by barbed wire.
We heard stories from people who had been detained, one six year old told a heartbreaking story of being separated from a parent. “I wanted to make a paper airplane and I made a paper airplane and the guard took it away. It made me sad because I wanted to make an airplane for everyone so we could all fly away.” Stories of how long it took for release, how horrific some of the conditions, the list goes on. Yet despite the almost crushing weight of these tales of evil that exists in the very midst of this small Texas community; we left with hope. Hope that our voices were heard, that justice could prevail, that freedom would ring even in this prison.