A Dilley of a trip: helping detained immigrants in Texas

Paula Raffaelli and Mario Ochoa Villicana

UC Berkeley lawyer Paula Raffaelli and husband, Mario Ochoa Villicana, will spend next week helping detained immigrants in Texas. (Photo by Paula Raffaelli)

For most of us, spending a week in Dilley, Texas, isn’t at the top of the list when mapping out a week’s vacation.

It’s in the middle of nowhere — 71 miles from San Antonio and 83 miles from Laredo. Almost no one lives there — just about 4,000 people in 2.4 square miles of Texas turf.

For the parents of a 15-month-old daughter, there are many more obvious places to go — like all of them.

But starting Saturday, Dilley is where you’ll find UC Berkeley’s Paula Raffaelli and her husband, Mario Ochoa Villicana. Raffaelli is taking a week off from her work as a complaint resolution officer with Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination. Villicana, himself a Berkeley alum, is tagging along while taking a break from Arcanum Architecture in San Francisco.

Their goal is to provide as much legal assistance as they can to the immigrants who are detained in the biggest detention camp run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Although the site was built to hold 2,400 women and children, the actual number of those incarcerated fluctuates daily.

Grandma Diane and Grandpa Paolo will move in to assume babysitting chores for the week while mom and dad see what assistance they can offer other kids and their parents.

“That’s one of the hardest things about this,” Raffaelli says of their one-week separation. “Our daughter is still just itty bitty. But when I first heard about all these families being separated, my heart was breaking over the zero tolerance policies. What’s going on there is so above and beyond the norm, and I felt spurred to do something to help.

“As the daughter of an immigrant and being married to an immigrant, I wanted to do more on this. I asked around for ways I could do that.”

Raffaelli is volunteering with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, now commonly referred to as the Dilley Pro Bono Project. She’s just was the group needs — a lawyer with a background in immigration and asylum cases. And while Raffaelli speaks Spanish well enough, in Villicana she has an able translator. He was born in Mexico and knows all about the U.S. immigration system.

“Seeing all that’s happening at the border reminded me of once being a young immigrant at the age of 11,” he says. “I was caught at the border and detained in Tijuana in 1996.”

Dilley, Texas

Dilley, Texas, is the site of the largest immigrant detention center in the United States. (Photo: AMAPO)

He’s long since become a U.S. citizen, and he believed that part of his life was behind him. Then watching the TV coverage of the border detentions and the family separations, the memories came racing back.

“I had almost unconsciously suppressed those memories,” he says. “What Paula is doing is inspiring me to give back. I’m grateful for the chance to do something more.”

On her road to Berkeley, Raffaelli spent 3½ years working for the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. One of her primary roles there was to review appeals, primarily of asylum cases. She later clerked for a judge in Alaska where one of her core assignments was centered around immigration and asylum claims.

All of this makes her an ideal candidate as one of perhaps two dozen lawyers who will spend the week helping the women and children in Dilley (there is a similar facility in Karnes, Texas, about 100 miles away, that houses men).

The Dilley Pro Bono Program brings in a new crew of lawyers each week to give the detainees a fighting chance to successfully wind their way through the complications of the U.S. immigration system.

“What I’ve seen just breaks my heart,” Raffaelli says. “I wanted to do more than just make a donation.”

Detainees have no guarantee of the right to meet with legal help, which is why this program bringing in a steady flow of volunteer lawyers can be a lifesaver.

“We’ll do advocacy work as needed,” she says. “The mothers may have minors who have been separated from them or their husbands may be being held elsewhere. And if a woman is pregnant, we’ll work on a bond to get a release. We strongly oppose pregnant women in detention.

“We know that needs may change a little once we’re there, but our understanding is that we will help prep these women for immigration interviews. They may have endured horrific treatment, and often they won’t want to talk about it. They’ll just say `bad stuff happened.’ But in the journey toward asylum they have to show persecution in the past or the credible threat of it in the future. So there is a need for them to open up in the interview. Hopefully we can help with that.”

Villicana isn’t planning on telling his story to the women he and his wife will be attempting to help. He says the week has to be about the women and children if the program is to be effective.

“But if it seemed right, I would share part of my experience coming to the U.S. from Mexico,” he said. “It began in Tijuana, and I eventually ended up a Berkeley student and am now a proud alum.”

And for vacation Mario and Paula will try to help others tell their stories.