Where children are prisoners and crayons are contraband.

The Central American refugee crisis has sent tens of thousands of people, primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, through Mexico and across the US border. These refugees, the vast majority of them women and children, are escaping extreme violence and abuse in their homes and communities. Their path to safety in the US is littered with danger.

For many who make it, another brutal reality awaits – family detention in facilities across the southwest US, and deportation back to the danger they left behind.

Many of the refugees are victims of gender-based violence, and Sanctuary’s attorneys are eager to help. Carmen Rey, Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project is in Texas this week to provide legal service support to detained mothers and children at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, which houses up to 2,400 detained immigrant families.

This is the first of three posts Carmen will be sharing from Dilley. Check back throughout the week to follow her journey and hear about the mothers and children she defends.

As an immigration lawyer, the prospect of a week of complete immersion in immigration and refugee law is a dream, but as a human, I dread the crying children.

Starting in 2014, in response to the influx of refugee mothers and children from Central America arriving at the US border in search of protection, private prison subcontractors working with the Department of Homeland Security created a series of detention facilities in isolated areas across the southern US.

In these jails, these refugees are held far from their families and from legal resources, and in conditions that sometimes violate basic standards of decency. As a lawyer, that all makes me furious, and so the prospect of helping them fight against their continued detention is energizing.

But what scares me is that, because of the arbitrary rules of these jails, there is little we can do to comfort the children.

The innocuously named South Texas Family Residential Center is one of these jails. Located in Dilley, Texas, over an hour away from the nearest city, San Antonio, it is one of the largest civil detention facilities in the US, and it is where I will be volunteering my time for the next week.

During these seven days, in a warren of small rooms in a trailer in the middle of south Texas, volunteer attorneys and legal assistants from across the US, will spend long days meeting with hundreds of refugee mothers and their children. Guided by the on-the-ground expertise of the CARA Project, we will work to prevent these families from being immediately deported back to places where they face severe violence and even death.

In these rooms, we will ask these families the horrors that brought them to our borders, and get the details that allow us to help them win their freedom. And that will ease my fury and make me proud to be a lawyer.

But in the telling of these horrors, the mothers will cry. And when children see their mothers cry, the children will cry. But because these children are prisoners of our government, the attorneys and legal assistant volunteers can’t so much as give these children pack of crayons to distract them.

In the South Texas Residential Center, children are prisoners and crayons are contraband.

And so, watching the children cry, I will feel my eyes fill with tears and feel powerless to help a young child stop crying. And as a human being, that is what scares me.

Carmen Rey is an attorney and the Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project