LIRS Staff Member Shares Her Heartbreaking Trip to Dilley Family Detention Center

The Dilley detention center under construction.

The Dilley detention center under construction.

Joanne Kelsey, LIRS Assistant Director for Advocacy, visited the freshly opened Dilley family detention center last week. What she saw and learned underscores how detention is no place for children.

Joanne writes:

On the eve of the Martin Luther King weekend, I visited the “South Texas Family Residential Facility” in Dilley, Texas. Although the word “detention” is missing from the name, there is no hiding the purpose of this massive new facility. The Dilley facility is the largest immigration detention facility ever built, designed to hold 2,400 children and mothers entering the United States. For me, the Dilley facility encapsulates why the immigrant rights movement is the most important civil rights movement of our time.

One scene from the tour sticks with me. A little girl, no older than two, was walking along holding onto one of the male staff members. She was delightful and he was delighted, both of them smiling as she advanced, as toddlers do, more sideways steps than forward ones. He was dressed in a brown uniform and she sported a puffy, pink coat that she had received upon arrival at the facility. Her coat was the only colorful object on the whole horizon.

In that moment, knowing that many of these families had been detained already for six months and watching a uniformed stranger, not a grandparent or loved one, witness some of this child’s first steps, the true costs of this unnecessary detention immobilized me.

Why hold children and their mothers in detention? The U.S. government has stated that detaining this vulnerable group will deter other mothers and children from making the same dangerous journey from Central America and towards the relative safety in America that these detainees made earlier.

The government is wrong.  The threats these families are fleeing are real and have not diminished.

Already 80% of the women held at Dilley have expressed a fear of returning home, mostly because of gang-related or domestic violence. Many of these women have demonstrated that their fear is credible and that they are eligible to seek asylum here in the United States.  Despite a government policy that favors release for asylum-seekers who have passed the credible fear interview, like these mothers, the government routinely opposes release requests from detainees at Dilley and other family detention facilities.

At full capacity, 2,400 children and mothers will be detained in Dilley at a cost of just under $750,000 per day. Is this enormous financial cost necessary to ensure these families will appear for their immigration proceedings? Certainly not. There are also drastic costs to the well-being of mothers and children held in detention.

Most of the women we talked to had a family member in the United States who knew they were here and were waiting to take them in. Allowing these women and children to live with these family members while awaiting their immigration court hearings would cost the government nothing. For those without family members, effective alternatives to detention based on community support are available at a fraction of the cost and with the benefit of locations accessible to the legal community.

I have visited many immigration detention facilities over the years. What I have learned is that immigration detention comes in all shapes, sizes, and locations. I have met with detainees forced into solitary confinement for weeks “for their own safety” and others who have not been outside for four years because an open window 20 feet above their heads is considered to meet the requirements for “outdoor recreation space.”

Dilley is none of those things, but it is detention and it is an absolutely inappropriate response to these already traumatized families. Currently, it is a maze of temporary gray trailers, mud-brown “cottages” where the families live, and a dining facility under a large temporary tent set an hour and half from San Antonio, Texas on hundreds of acres of flat, brown Texas mud.

If, as Dr. King is believed to have said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” I am wondering when it will start to bend towards these children and mothers from Central America.

Following my visit, I am more committed than ever to ensuring the mothers and children detained in Texas are not forgotten and one day soon are welcomed into our country with dignity, justice, and compassion.

To learn more about why family immigration detention is contrary to our values as Americans, read the recent report by LIRS and Women’s Refugee CommissionLocking Up Family Values, Again. 

Photo credit: Joanne Kelsey

Education, Economics, and Polls — Top Picks of the Immigration and Refugee Blogosphere

DadandSonFlag300x300As Congressional debate over immigration reform and the President’s Executive Action persists, evidence continues to pour in about the economic benefits and positive public opinion of immigrants, and their place in the fabric of the United States. This week, I’d like to feature a piece from Immigration Impact’s Paul McDaniel, in which he analyzes a new report about how immigrant entrepreneurs help local economies grow.

Please email me or comment if you have any thoughts about this week’s Top Picks. Thank you for taking the time to visit this blog, and I look forward to sharing the best online commentary on immigration and refugee issues.

Former Refugee from Bhutan Tackles Stereotypes and Creates Change in Colorado

Bhuwan Pyakurel and his daughter, who is in first grade

Bhuwan Pyakurel and his daughter, who is in first grade.

Bhuwan Pyakurel, former refugee from Bhutan and World Refugee Day Academy participant, has created change in his Colorado community. After participating in the World Refugee Day Academy, he started a refugee advocacy group in Colorado and frequently meets with local officials. Bhuwan’s plans to empower Bhutanese refugees in his community and ensure they become valued Coloradans are well on their way.

This interview was conducted over email by Juliet Sohns, LIRS Grassroots Mobilization Intern.

Juliet Sohns (JS): How did you become involved in activism regarding refugee issues?

Bhuwan Pyakurel (BP): Being a resettled refugee I wish to thank people and the government of this country for giving me a second chance to live my life. I am very grateful to them, and will remain grateful, for giving the opportunity to people like me to grow and realize the American dream. It is hard to imagine what life would be like without resettlement.

Refugees are people that have faced harsh conditions. A majority of them are persecuted in their country of origin, discriminated against and humiliated in their host country. Bhutanese refugees were persecuted by the King’s regime in Bhutan and driven out of the country. We lived as refugees in Nepal, a neighboring country, for about 20 years before being resettled in the United States. As refugees are resettled, they come with mixed baggage. They have their strengths: experiences, knowledge, skills and diversity, and they have their share of problems: cultural concerns, language problems, adjustment problems and above all, the memory of the history of persecution. Generally, I wanted to help resettled refugees integrate in the local community.

I had felt that when I was resettled in the United States in 2009 all of our problems were resolved. But the reality is different. After my resettlement in Colorado in 2009, I felt that there were a lot of things we needed to do for the refugee community in this country. With my work in the community I found that there are several narratives in the receiving communities about the refugees. Refugees are often generalized. For instance, some believe that all refugees are illiterate, refugees should not be given decision-making roles, and refugees do not know English. I strongly feel that such stereotyping must change. I want to change this narrative by bringing some practical examples and telling the community that these narratives are not correct. I also would like to tell the receiving community that people in the refugee community have a lot of experiences in decision-making because of practical experiences they have had in their life. It was for these reasons that I became involved in activism regarding refugee issues.

JS: What was your experience at the advocacy training during World Refugee Day Academy 2014 like?

BP: First of all I’d like to thank LIRS for organizing this great event and particularly for providing the opportunity for refugees to visit the seat of power and present their case. I was very happy to learn that I would be on Capitol Hill. In the beginning I was quite nervous and just wondered what was I going to do. With the training provided a day in advance and sharing experiences, I was comfortable in the actual action day in the Capitol.

Because of my visit to the Capitol, I realized changes can be made in refugees’ lives. I also learned that some public officials in D.C. are not aware of refugee resettlement in the United States. That, I felt was rather awkward and therefore saw the role of refugees themselves to come forward and educate these public officials. And I also learned some public officials had firsthand experience with refugees, and were always encouraging pro-refugee decisions.

JS: How did the leadership training help and empower you to act in your community on pro-refugee issues?

BP: With the leadership training I learned about refugee and immigrant issues in the country. I also learned that there are several issues that can be resolved by simple policy changes and at the same time there are several issues that could take some more time and energy. With the leadership training I was able to go the community and reach out and make them aware of the refugee issues in the country. For example, people in the community could be encouraged in the field of civic engagement by exercising their right to vote at the local, state, and federal level.

JS: What did you bring back from the training to Colorado?

BP: Upon my return from D.C., I was able to form an advocacy group within the refugee community. The work of this group is to advocate for programs to help refugees at the local and state level. In the meantime, the group decided to advocate for the continuation of Office of Refugee Resettlement funding for the domestic refugee program. The group collected signatures from the community and met their elected public officials in their local offices to ask them to vote in favor of this. The refugee advocacy group is now actively working on the advocacy.

JS: What are the main issues you want to address that are unique to the U.S. Bhutanese refugee community?

BP: There are several issues in the Bhutanese refugee communities in the United States. Mental health is the most concerning of all. The suicide rate in the Bhutanese community in the United States is very high as compared to any other community. So mental health issues needs to be addressed as soon as possible. I know that there are several programs to address this problem but culturally appropriate programs involving the people in the community could address this issue better. Any refugee issue is complicated, so are the Bhutanese refugee issues. To address this better, community involvement is needed.

JS: How do you intend to continue your activism for refugee issues in Columbus?

BP: Since the beginning of my resettlement in the United States, I learned that there are many programs designed for empowerment of the community. But the sad reality is that a lot of those programs are designed for the community and not by the community. So the results of many of those programs are not very great. I see a lot of potential in the community here in Columbus, which could be utilized for the betterment of this great city. For example, I have been a yoga teacher for 15 years, and I like to give back to the community by teaching yoga. At the same time there are many other resources within the community I like to utilize, and would like to design a strength-based model of community organizing here in Columbus.

When refugees resettle after living in refugee camps, all their hopes and aspirations are on their children. So I’d like to design a community-based model of refugee parent engagement and encourage parents to be involved in their child’s education because the school system here in the United States is different from in the refugee camp or in Bhutan.

To do this, I need support from the service provider. I am very hopeful that I can make the required connection soon.

HEADLINES: Immigration — January 21, 2015

President Obama Speech 300x300Yesterday, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address to the nation. While the first half of his address focused on what America has “bounced back from,” the second half focused on the values that America seeks to uphold. As Mr. Obama detailed, one of those values is reasoned debate that is “worthy of this body and worthy of this country.”

President Obama stated, “Yes, passions still fly, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student.” Surely we can agree that no one benefits when deportation rips families apart, and that “it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.” Visit our blog for HEADLINES: Immigration. I’ll bring you all the most important and up-to-date news on the immigration debate.

Majority of Americans Back Obama on Cuba, Immigration [The Wall Street Journal]

Obama Tells Congress Not to Fight Past Battles on Immigration Again [Huffington Post]

On Immigration, Obama Threatens to Veto Any Attempt to Undo Actions on Deportation [The Washington Post]

Deported Youth Feel Forgotten in Mexico [Fronteras]

Immigration Raised Twice in 6500 Words [The Hill]

Dallas ‘DREAMer’ to be Guest of Michelle Obama at State of the Union [The Dallas Morning News]

Congress, Climate Change, and Children — Top Picks of the Immigration and Refugee Blogosphere

capitol 300New Congressional representatives had little time to make themselves comfortable before the battle to fund the Department of Homeland Security was placed in front of them. Already passed in the House, H.R. 240 includes harmful amendments that would separate families and place under daily fear of deportation thousands of our friends, family members and neighbors, including young people who arrived in the United States as children. Immigration Impact’s Amy Grenier reveals the impact removing parents has on U.S. citizen children, which this bill has the potential to do.

Please email me or comment if you have any thoughts about this week’s Top Picks. Thank you for taking the time to visit this blog, and I look forward to sharing the best online commentary on immigration and refugee issues.

‘To Draw My Future With My Own Hand’ – Through Courageous Eyes


This is the story of Fatima, a teenage mother of three and widow, who learned photography at Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp. This story was written by Warda Al-Jawahiry, a contributor to the Tracks collection of stories of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). For the entire piece, please continue reading on the Tracks site

The Through Courageous Eyes blog series focuses on migrant and refugee artists and is curated by Cecilia Pessoa, LIRS Communications Associate.

Just 19 years old, Fatima is already a widowed mother of three and a refugee from the conflict in Syria. Through photography, she has found a way to relate her experiences and begin rebuilding her shattered life.

Before receiving a camera, Fatima learned to frame scenes with a piece of cardboard.UNHCR/B.Bannon

Before receiving a camera, Fatima learned to frame scenes with a piece of cardboard.

“Sometimes when I see my friends who are the same age, still studying, taking courses, not married and with no kids, I feel I am still young,” Fatima tells me when we meet. “But grief is not a light thing to carry. It’s a heavy burden. It can age and weaken a person.”

As we sit in her nondescript shelter inside Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp and she describes the events that brought her here, I have to remind myself that she is still only 19.

My Wish To escape from the worries of life. A human being cannot tolerate the worries we are stuck with. I wish to go back to the age of a child who doesn’t recognize anything of life but tenderness. UNHCR/Fatima

“My Wish – To escape from the worries of life. A human being cannot tolerate the worries we are stuck with. I wish to go back to the age of a child who doesn’t recognize anything of life but tenderness.”

Two years ago she was living with her husband, Mustafa, and two young sons in an abandoned school close to the Syrian capital, having been driven from their home in the suburban Damascus district of Ghouta by constant shelling.

She calmly recalls the horror of watching from a window one day as her husband and his brother were detained and beaten by soldiers at a checkpoint near the school. A few hours later her deepest fears were confirmed. Her husband had been killed, and his body put on public display.

Life Pressure - The absence of my beloved one caused a burden that is intolerable. The pressure of life taught me, told me to draw my future with my own hand. UNHCR/Fatima

“Life Pressure – The absence of my beloved one caused a burden that is intolerable. The pressure of life taught me, told me to draw my future with my own hand.”

“That was the worst moment of my life,” Fatima says. “They took my husband right in front of me and I was helpless to do anything. We couldn’t bury his body.” A widow at 17 and pregnant with her third child, she left behind her homeland and the only life she knew.

Yes, our life is hard and filled with difficulty. We are in an unbearable crisis. Despite that we still exercise and build skills for sports. We will improve ourselves. We will run, climb fences, lift weights, play football, ride bikes that no one cares for. We will even pull rope. We won't give up. We will prove to the world that we are still children, adults and old men. We are Syrian refugees.UNHCR/Fatima

“Yes, our life is hard and filled with difficulty. We are in an unbearable crisis. Despite that we still exercise and build skills for sports. We will improve ourselves. We won’t give up. We will prove to the world that we are still children, adults and old men. We are Syrian refugees.”

To watch a video about Fatima’s photography and to continue reading the rest of Fatima’s story see UNHCR Tracks. Find all the previous posts in the Through Courageous Eyes series.

Through Courageous Eyes features the artistic work of refugees and migrants. If you would like to showcase your artwork as part of the Through Courageous Eyes series, please contact Cecilia Pessoa at

Banner photo credit: Johanan Ottensooser

House Passes Harmful Anti-Immigration Amendments to DHS Bill: Senate Expected to Oppose Bill


On Tuesday, we updated you on proposed amendments to the Department of Homeland Security spending bill being considered in the House of Representatives (H.R. 240) that would separate families and harm young people who came to the United States as children. Because of your quick action, in 24 hours almost 350 messages were sent to elected officials urging them to oppose harmful amendments to the bill.

While the bill ultimately passed the House on Wednesday afternoon with all amendments attached, we were encouraged to see strong bipartisan opposition to the two most harmful amendments. It was heartening to see widespread support from both sides of the aisle for “DREAMers” who have come forward and been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Next, the bill heads to the Senate where we expect strong opposition to language prohibiting the President’s November actions to stabilize families and provide deportation relief to undocumented parents and DREAMers. Even if the House bill garners the 60 votes it needs to overcome a possible filibuster in the Senate, President Obama has already pledged to veto it if restrictions on his actions are included.

Aside from the amendments added by the House on Wednesday, here are some ways the House-passed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending bill would affect migrants and refugees:

  • Increases funding for migrant detention and maintains the inhumane, arbitrary, and expensive bed quota that requires DHS to maintain 34,000 daily detention beds for immigration purposes
  • Increases funding for detaining migrant mothers and children by adding 3,700 new family detention beds
  • Increases funding to address migrant children traveling to the United States alone, some of which would be used to interdict these children on their journey towards safety and prevent them from seeking refuge here

On a more positive note, H.R. 240 also increases funding for Alternatives to Detention (ATD) programs. These alternatives, including community-based support models championed by LIRS, are far more humane and less expensive than detaining men, women and children for immigration purposes.

We will keep you updated on the bill’s progress and opportunities to raise your voice in support of compassionate and just immigration laws and policies. As always, thank you for standing for welcome.

HEADLINES: Immigration — January 14, 2015

capitol 300As the new majorities settle into the House and Senate, many migrants across the country hold their breath as the battle over funding the President’s Executive Actions that protected millions from deportation begins. Visit our blog for HEADLINES: Immigration. I’ll bring you all the most important and up-to-date news on the immigration debate.

Bill to Defund Homeland Security Unlikely to Pass Senate [The Wall Street Journal]

House GOP’s Immigration Problem: No Path to 60 in Senate [Politico]

House Republicans Target Child Immigrants in Tea Party Nod [Bloomberg]

How Texas Could Give Up On It’s DREAM [MSNBC]

States Passed 171 Immigration Laws Last Year [The Washington Post]

New York City to Formally Start Its Municipal ID Card Program [The New York Times]

81% of Refugee Students in Worcester (MA) Went on to College in 2014 [GoLocal Worcester]

New Mexico Group Beginning Statewide Effort to Reach Immigrants Eligible for Relief [KRWG]

We Need Your Voice! Congress Votes on Harmful Legislation Today


Congress has been in session for only a week and is already poised to vote on significant immigration legislation. The House of Representatives is expected to vote today on a spending package to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2015. A spending bill must be passed before current DHS funding expires on February 27th.

The proposed spending package in the House, H.R. 240, includes harmful amendments that would separate families and place under daily fear of deportation thousands of our friends, family members and neighbors, including young people who arrived in the United States as children. These amendments prevent the implementation of the President’s recent Immigration Accountability Executive Actions and would rip apart our families, communities and congregations.

The following two proposed amendments are of most concern to LIRS:

  • The Aderholt/Mulvaney/Barletta amendment would needlessly rupture families due to deportation. This amendment erects barriers to family unity by preventing the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the extension of relief from deportation to certain undocumented parents of U.S. citizen and legal permanent resident children, and the prioritizing of immigration enforcement on serious threats to our communities.
  • The Blackburn amendment would lead to instability and fear in our workplaces, schools, communities and congregations by exposing hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the United States as children, or “DREAMers,” to the possibility of deportation.

LIRS supports stabilizing the status of people who are valuable members of our communities, worship in our churches, and call America home. As people of faith, we believe that migrants who are integral to our communities and are beloved members of our families should be free from fear of deportation in order to focus on their continued contributions to the country they call home.

Members of the House of Representatives must hear that people of faith oppose harmful amendments to H.R. 240 and stand for protecting family unity and ensuring that young people have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Please consider taking action online through LIRS’s Action Center or by calling your Representatives through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

We expect that there will be several more attempts to use the DHS spending bill as a vehicle to pass controversial immigration legislation. Check back to the blog for updates. Now and in the days ahead, we thank you for standing for welcome.

Our Work Has Never Been More Important — Further Reflections from Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan

Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan

Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan

People keep asking me if I have ever been to Jordan before — taxi drivers and aid workers ask, government officials, UN and refugees ask.  My answer is “yes,” I have been to Jordan once before — but it was more than 20 years ago. At the time I worked on Capitol Hill and travelled with a congressional delegation to learn more about the situation of Palestinian refugees. Decades later, it is hard to believe I am back and that Jordan continues to be on the front line of providing refuge to hundreds of thousands of new refugees fleeing for their lives.

The conflict in neighboring Syria is now in its fourth year causing a massive humanitarian crisis. More than 200,000 people are dead and 1 million injured. More than 3 million people have become refugees, fleeing for their lives, leaving everything behind, and seeking safety in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. More than 7 million people are displaced from their homes inside Syria seeking safety where they can. Nearly half of all who have been affected by the war are children. And since 2014, the crisis has only grown as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has emerged as a new and brutal threat that is sweeping across Syria and Iraq.

And so I have traveled to Jordan and Egypt as a member of a Refugee Council USA delegation to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis, to strengthen our advocacy and help equip LIRS and our network for the work of resettling a small portion of Syrian refugees in the United States beginning in 2015.

On our first day in Jordan, we met with:

  • the U.S. government’s Refugee Coordinator that leads our country’s work on resettlement in the region;
  • leadership of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that is involved in screening refugees for resettlement, provides cultural orientation for those coming to the US, and arranges refugees’ travel; and
  • the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan as well as senior protection staff of UNHCR.

Jordan has been a country of remarkable hospitality to refugees — providing safety for hundreds of thousands of refugees across the decades. The population of Jordan is about 6.5 million, which includes many former Palestinian refugees now integrated into the country. It is not a wealthy country — poverty is high, unemployment is estimated at 30%, it is among the countries with the least secure access to water — and still it has made room for neighbors.

Can you imagine — what would happen if 32 million people from other countries (equivalent to 10% of the US population) streamed across the U.S. borders running for their lives, with nothing, seeking protection, shelter, food, water, health care, education and hope for a future? It is truly beyond imagination. But that is exactly what has happened as Jordan has provided asylum for the equivalent of 10% of its population. At present, 620,000 Syrian refugees are registered in Jordan and 40,000 Iraqi refugees. Yet only about 100,000 live in five refugee camps, while the vast majority of these refugees live in local communities where they are considered “urban refugees.”  More about this in a future post.

But hosting these many refugees is causing huge strains in Jordan. There is growing resentment and services are being cut off. Since late in 2014, most of the refugees now fleeing ISIS who cross in to Jordan seeking safety are forcibly returned to Syria. There is fear among the refugees and among the Jordanian people, while the international community is growing tired of this refugee crisis.

One official described this as the most dangerous period in the history of the Middle East in terms of war, deaths, displacement of people, and the saturation of weapons. Solutions are not clear and won’t be easy. As is often the case, most refugees hope to go home one day – but that day is not likely to come soon.

The work of LIRS, our partners and supporters has never been more important.  We must continue to advocate to protect Syrian refugees, we can’t grow weary, and we must open our hearts and be prepared to welcome some of these refugees into our communities.