"Children should not be detained. Any amount of time in detention is harmful."

An interview with Julia Valero of RAICES; plus, links and book club details.

Like many, we were horrified by the stories of family separation that exploded into public view in the first half of 2018. Eager to do something, Michelle got in touch with a dear friend, Eunice Cho (now at the ACLU), who recommended that we contact the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in San Antonio. Around the same time, a viral fundraising campaign pushed the organization into the front pages of the national newspapers. In a week and a half, the fundraising generated more than $20 million, a reflection of the broad outrage that family separation provoked.

That summer we traveled to San Antonio to volunteer with RAICES. One of our responsibilities was working at Karnes, one of the three family immigration prisons in the country. It was there that we met Julia Valero, who oversaw volunteers, coordinated client intake, dealt with unpredictable guards, and offered legal and emotional support to detained children and parents. We were blown away to see her in action—she managed a chaotic and dehumanizing prison environment with gravitas and grace, remaining cheerful all the while.

In this interview, Julia talks about the conditions at Karnes, where guards have banned crayons and yell at kids for playing tag. She discusses the challenges of working with prison guards, observing that the “tension sometimes helps to clarify to our clients who we are.” She describes the apparatus of detention as “so big and yet so invisible” and “hiding in plain sight.” She talks about how Title 42 has been weaponized against Black and Haitian families in particular. And she shares how her own Basque background and her father’s stories of life under the Franco dictatorship shaped her understanding of justice. 

This is the third interview in our series about people who work on the frontlines of battles for immigrant justice. Read the first with Nicole Ramos of Al Otro Lado and the second with Sofia Kalogirou at The Florence Project.

Albert: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? We know you have an interesting family history.  

Julia Valero: My dad is from Spain, and he grew up during the Franco dictatorship. I grew up hearing bedtime stories from my dad about the kind of stuff they would encounter. 

My favorite was the pine nut story, about how, out of necessity, he and his brother snuck into the national forest to gather food where Franco and his family would also go hunting. Franco’s presence was ubiquitous, because not only did they live under the dictatorship but they happened to live in the same town where the governing fascist party was headquartered.  It was well-known that Franco and his family would abuse their power and go hunting in the forest; you could hear the gunshots from the town although it was prohibited. 

My father was one of seven kids. The family was just trying to get by. So the older kids would go into the forest and collect stuff like pine nuts for the family to eat. One day a policeman stopped them on their way home, carrying baskets of pinecones that served as damning evidence, and made the kids march to a police station. My tío Joaquin was only about 11 at the time, and he got held overnight by the police. My dad, around 10 years old, was almost detained, too, but the cop released him. When my dad got home and told his father what happened, he expected him to be furious with him. Instead of being mad at my dad, my abuelo was furious at the cop who felt it was fine to lock up an 11 year old.

My dad first told me this story when I was four years old, and it clued me into other realities than the one I encountered in Wisconsin as a little kid. It ignited a passion for justice. As I got older, though, I learned more about what reality under Franco looked like. I learned more about what the transition to democracy in Spain looked like, too, and how many of my family members experienced detention or police brutality. Of course, Spain is a different context from the United States, and antifascists protestors weren’t being targeted because of their race. But it did give me an inkling about class relations-punishing the poor for trying to survive while the rich were above the law for breaking the same rules-and the need to really fight for stuff that’s precious. I learned that democracy, or so-called democracy, is very precious and precarious too. 

Michelle: How did you end up at RAICES?

JV: I was really lucky. In college I had the fortune of getting a scholarship to be an intern in public interest law. I had known I was interested in immigration law for a long time. I also wanted to do something justice-related and anticolonial, and something where I could use my Spanish. 

Eventually I landed an internship with RAICES in their family detention program. Until that point I hadn't worked with any actively incarcerated populations. But after that experience, I knew I absolutely wanted to continue doing that work. There was no going back. 

AW: What was it about that initial experience that made such an impact?

JV: It's hard to put into words. I don't think I could ever do it justice, but there were a lot of different compounding factors. 

The entire detention center apparatus is so big and yet so invisible. It’s hiding in plain sight. But honestly, I think what struck me most was meeting the families. I saw at least a little of the harm that detention was causing. I saw how the guards treat little kids. I saw a little of how dehumanizing the system is. And I learned about how absolutely arbitrary their detention was in the first place.

Karnes was built in 2012 as an adult male detention facility. In 2014 ICE converted into a family detention site that imprisons parents and children. Photo credit: Albert Wu

MK: Karnes is one of the three family detention prisons in the U.S. Could you tell us what you see? How are children and families treated? 

JV:  I know many released families report continuing nightmares, flashbacks. Parents tell me their children run away when they see the police. Not from the parents, but they’ll run away and lock themselves in the bathroom because they are afraid the police will take away their parents or lock them up again.

I’ve seen guards yell at children for playing off of the carpet. I’ve seen guards yell at kids for running while playing tag. I've seen guards yell at kids for holding pens, citing random rules: “No, you're not allowed to hold writing utensils” even though kids still need to sign legal documents. Crayons have been banned at Karnes because a child wrote on a desk once. Detention is no place for a child, even if it has bright colors and a few toys that could desensitize one to the reality that it’s a prison.

I’ve spoken to so many suicidal people—adults and kids—that I’ve long lost track. I used to recite all of their names in prayer after the end of a day doing detained work, but I can’t remember them all anymore. Unfortunately, the response to someone indicating suicidality in detention is usually that they’re locked in solitary confinement instead of receiving possibly life saving medical care. In 2020, a father at Karnes took his own life.

Children should not be detained. Any amount of time in detention is harmful. A day is an injustice. Even an hour is an injustice. It’s something people will carry with them for the rest of their lives, and it’s completely unnecessary. While it’s encouraging to see language about “undoing” the harm of Trump’s policies, simply changing the policy is not true reparation. What does that do for the people who have already been irrevocably impacted?

More broadly, in terms of what I’ve seen in detention, it's difficult to know where to start. There's just so many different levels: medical care, guards, ICE, private attorneys, judges, all sorts of different actors in the detention center. 

MK: I’m curious about the guards. What I found so admirable during our time in Karnes was how you interacted with them. You're walking a tightrope every day, and I’m sure it's exhausting and tricky. From what we saw, the guards have so much discretionary power. There must be even more happening behind the scenes. 

JV: Thank you for that. It's difficult. I mean, I think my position is different given the privileges I carry, as a white, U.S.-born woman on the team. I don't have to deal with a lot of the things my BIPOC and/or immigrant colleagues do from the prison guards. The guards definitely do leverage their power over us, because they know we depend on them to be able to meet with our clients. Any little thing you do to anger a guard could result in them citing an arbitrary policy, and that policy might not exist when we ask ICE about it. But if I release my frustration on the guard about how they are treating me, they may take that out on the client when I’m not around or they might take it out on other clients by limiting my ability to meet with them or slowing down my day. When one works in emergency deportation defense with asylum seekers, an hour’s delay can make the difference between someone’s life or death so that’s critical time.

One day I was about to do a group meeting and I needed one more chair. We are not allowed to move the chairs ourselves. This was a meeting with Spanish-speaking women. I was speaking to the guard in Spanish—I knew he spoke Spanish and had spoken Spanish with him many times in the past. And he refused to respond to me in Spanish. I repeatedly said, “Please, a chair for the group. Excuse me, please, a chair for the group,” and he refused to respond although he saw and heard me.I just remained calm and asked repeatedly, and he wouldn’t respond to me until I spoke English. All the women knew exactly what was going on in that moment. 

But that tension also sometimes helps to clarify to our clients who we are—it helps distinguish us from everyone else they interact with on a daily basis at the detention center, as everyone else there either works for ICE or is affiliated with the private prison company, Geo Group, that runs Karnes. When the guards act like that, I can say to clients, “I am somebody you can talk to about your case. I promise I'm not a part of the prison guards. Seethe way they talk to me? That's because we don't work for the same organization.” So, sometimes the guards kind of play themselves. 

But nonetheless it’s disturbing, because one sees glimpses of how the guards might act when we're not around. From what clients say, the guards feel more emboldened to be explicitly racist and to throw their weight around when there aren’t outside observers. And verbal harassment or intimidation is only the tip of the iceberg. 

AW: Can you talk a little bit about how things have changed at Karnes because of COVID? What’s happened in the past year or so? 

JV: I won’t mince words. It's been really difficult. The most important things we can do, other than the legal stuff-trying to stop deportations and get people out of detention-is to just be human with people going through the process. We try to show them respect. We offer a hand if they would find that supportive. We try to laugh. Humanity comes with being able to hold presence and space with people. 

It's much harder to do that over the phone. And it's really hard to do that through an interpreter. Most of our team doesn't speak Haitian Creole or French. So it's been challenging to work through contract interpreters who will sometimes yell at our clients or at us. Sometimes they’ll drop whole phrases without saying anything about it. They don’t necessarily understand that this is life-or-death, that deportation and detention can be deadly. 

It's also been hard having to work over the phone because people don't even know who we are. We don't have that bare-minimum physical distinction from the GEO and the ICE guards. Detained families go through asylum interviews on the phone too, so if another person talks to them on the phone about asylum, how do they know we don't also work for the U.S. government? 

It's been hard to build trust. It’s been challenging to try to find ways to show humanity and have humor and figure out what’s authentically supportive rather than pressuring when talking to families. I'll often still try to end calls by saying, “If I may, I'm going to try to say thank you and goodbye in your language” and share a good laugh at my pronunciation if I’m working with a non-Spanish speaker. 

This is drone photo of an immigration prison in Florence, Arizona. As Julia says, the detention apparatus is “so big and yet so invisible” and “hiding in plain sight.” Photo credit: David Taylor. Read this Guardian article that includes more drone shots of detention centers.

AW: So who is detained in Karnes now? How did they end up there?

JV: A lot of Haitian families have been expelled under the Title 42 policy, which is tied to CDC guidelines around COVID. It's essentially a system through which the U.S. is expelling people. I'm not even using the term deportation because the government doesn't even consider them present in the U.S. So these people are being detained, sometimes for months, and then expelled with almost no due process, no access to attorneys, no access to seek asylum. They only have a screening under the Convention Against Torture. And if they don't pass that screening, there isn't much that can be done. 

We don't even know the full toll of how this policy is being used. The team I work with is just at one detention center. But hundreds of families, children, have been expelled under this policy after they came to the U.S. to seek protection. And Biden hasn't discontinued Title 42 expulsions, but he has the power to do so. 

Ironically, Title 42 came into place due to COVID, but people are still being held in detention while in this process. So there are people who have been infected with COVID during detention in Karnes. And yet a CDC policy is what's being used to justify their deportation without any substantive access to the asylum process. 

From what I’ve seen, Title 42 has been used against Haitian and other Black families in particular. 

MK: Where are they trying to cross? Were they trying to enter the U.S. all along the border? Or are they coming from particular countries?

JV: We've been working primarily with families from Haiti, but also a lot of families from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Congo-Kinshasa, a lot of Angolan families, Ghanaian families, a few Cameroonian families, Brazilian families, Romanian families, Ecuadorian families, and Cuban families. Those are the most common nationalities we've seen in recent months, but it's been pretty diverse in terms of where folks are coming from—again, primarily from the Caribbean, Latin America, and the West Coast of Africa. We've worked with a few Central Asian families as well.

AW: Do you have a sense of how they're being detained? Are families being housed together in one unit?

JV: We're seeing nuclear families detained as well as single parent families. Mom tends to stay with the kids and Dad tends to be in a cell with other dads or in solitary confinement. But they may be separated for the length of their detention, even within the same detention center. 

We've also seen some family separations happening because of false criminal allegations by the U.S. government. For example, one person was persecuted for being Muslim, then separated from his family due to false terrorism allegations in his country of origin. He was separated from his family for months and months and months. He just got out yesterday, thank God. But he missed his baby being born. That's the first of his children where he wasn’t present at birth. [You can read more about his family here.]

So, we're seeing lots of different types of family separations. And that's only in terms of parent and child, not even to mention the many other forms of separation between grandparent and grandchild, aunt, child, siblings, et cetera. That's another reason detention needs to be abolished. You can't claim to be taking on family separation unless you're taking on detention and deportations as well, because those are other forms of family separation. Even within family detention, family separations continue.

This is the first part of our interview. Next week Julia will talk about local grassroots struggles to abolish ICE. She’ll discuss how families sustain their spirits in detention. And she shares how she finds strength to continue this work and what advice she would give to the Biden administration.

If you would like to support the important work of RAICES, click here.


Book Club: The Makioka Sisters, Friday, March 26th, 2:45 PM ET

Our next book club meeting is Friday, March 26th at 2:45 PM EST. We are reading Junichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, which has been called the Japanese Middlemarch. You can email us for the Zoom link, and you don’t need to finish the book to come. We’ve been immersed in Tanizaki’s world of Vitamin B injections, Osaka-Tokyo rivalry, cherry blossom pilgrimages, and rejected male suitors.

And if you don’t have time to finish the book (we know we know, the book is 600 pages), you can watch Kon Ichikawa’s classic 1983 film, available through the Criterion Collection.

And bonus treat! Here’s audio of the baby getting tickled: