Asylum seekers face nearly impossible hurdles. The Dilley Pro Bono Project tries to help.

A week with 12 law students volunteering in South Texas

The sun was setting when Tatiana Alonso headed out from the Best Western Hotel in Dilley, Texas, this January with 11 of her classmates from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. The students had arrived in this small, remote town in South Texas for a week of volunteering at the South Texas Family Residential Center, where they hoped to provide legal support to the women and children being held at the federal detention center.

The students were going to a ranch to receive an orientation for their work with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. They drove under Interstate 35, busy with oil field traffic. They passed the Briscoe Unit federal prison on their left. Just beyond the prison, barely visible at the horizon, amidst brush and red dirt, were the tentlike awnings of the detention center.

The ranch felt like a secret hideout, just a few hundred yards from the detention center grounds. They gathered there in the near dark amid mesquite, juniper, and oak bushes. The white cement blocks of the ranch house were splattered and streaked with red dirt. Someone had collected the bones of animals from the area and piled them on windowsills. There were bicycles brought and then abandoned, said DPBP advocacy manager Katy Murdza, by naive and enthusiastic people who thought one might want to bicycle around here. A note on the refrigerator from a former staff member said, “I will be back for my bike.” She had not returned for it.