Legal Work as Care Work: Interview with Erin Routon

Rendering of the inside of the Dilley facility, from the perspective of one of the private meeting rooms in the visitation trailer. Photo by Erin Routon.

This post builds on the research article “Legal Care and Friction in Family Detention” by Erin Routon, which was published in the May 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In the following interview, Erin Routon and Riddhi Pandey explore the presence of care in legal work and the implications of recognizing legal work as care work as well. The conversation further delves into Routon’s own experiences of conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the constrained environments of two family detention facilities in the cities of Dilley and Karnes in Texas, where she speaks about the challenges she faced and the innovative strategies she employed.

Riddhi Pandey: My first question for you is an invitation to further elaborate on your chosen title for the paper, “Legal Care and Friction in Family Detention.” How is the notion of care significant for both the administrators who run the family detention facilities, as well as the legal advocates who work for their release? Can you reflect more on how care and friction coexist in these detention centers?

Erin Routon: While I try not to speak monolithically about the various administrators charged with the daily functioning of these detention facilities, nevertheless, the ways in which care is interpreted and realized through the institution is fundamentally different from those of the legal advocates with whom I worked. Thus, care is a critical concept for both. The institution was built through its identification with care, and, I might argue, was only able to survive as it did through that very identification. These family detention facilities—particularly the two in south Texas—were instituted during the Obama administration, and, as such, reflected that administration’s language around and practical approaches toward immigration. The inherent conflict in the Obama administration’s approach toward immigration policy and practice—namely, that they wished to project a respectful connection to immigrants while simultaneously instituting harsh punitive measures—is embodied in the family detention facility. Facility administrators refuse to relate the facility to a carceral space, insisting it is a “residential” center and guards are “residential supervisors”; detainees are held in “residential neighborhoods” characterized by child-like designations, such as “red parrot” and “brown bear”; “residents” are allowed to move freely throughout the center, effectively, during the day, and are given blue jeans and colorful t-shirts to wear. These are all characteristics that would appear to express care, in a way. I argue that these superficial expressions of care serve to create friction with the forms of care I’ve identified from advocates, which I don’t believe to be superficial, but rather both substantive and complicated. The facility’s everyday practices—some of which are shown in the article—are deeply harmful, destructive, and punitive, and their superficial expressions of care effectively disguise this. It is this contradiction with which legal advocates must contend in their efforts to provide their own care to detainees, creating an inevitable, ongoing friction.

RP: Would you say that legal and other forms of care the advocates provided to incarcerated parents and children in the family detention centers was one-sided or unidirectional caregiving? I wonder if you have any experiences to share of how this care was reciprocated. Can you share any examples of how this materialized?

ER: This is such an important question and something that I couldn’t recognize until later on in my fieldwork. Unfortunately, within the limited space of this article, I couldn’t discuss this, though I do in my dissertation (and hopefully forthcoming book). The short answer is no, the care I observed in the context of legal advocacy was not simply unidirectional, that is, from advocate to detainee, or “client.” From a cursory look at the situation, and even in the way the nonprofit organizations involved in this work often portray it, it would certainly appear so. These organizations frequently portrayed the work advocates did in somewhat traditional nonprofit terms, emphasizing selflessness, utter devotion to the needs of detained parents and children in these centers, certainly a form of unidirectional care. But this, as I learned from my own observations and conversations with fellow advocates, wasn’t the reality.

Allow me to share a brief example. A young advocate, Lucy (name changed), on a summer break after her first year of college, was spending an extended stay in Dilley as a legal advocate with the team there. Lucy had a rough start in Dilley. She had previously planned to spend her summer supporting a migrant aid organization across the border in Mexico but had to abruptly leave after she had begun to be followed (and thus targeted) by a local gang. She was told that she was targeted, in part, as a result of her appearance. Lucy was biracial, with white and Mexican parents, and was very light-skinned. As she would later tell me in Dilley, the fact that she was targeted, and ultimately had to abandon her plans in Mexico, was more hurtful than terrifying. For Lucy, this was simply a continuation of how she had felt most of her life in California. As a white-passing Mexican American woman, she struggled to find communities that fully accepted or recognized her. Before leaving for her stint in Mexico that summer, she had high hopes that she could find a way to fit in, to ingratiate herself within a community to which she felt she already belonged. She was crushed by the reality that she, effectively, was immediately recognized and cast out by her difference.

So, when Lucy sat down with a mother from El Salvador to work on her case with another white lawyer in Dilley to interpret for her, she was anxious that she would feel that same rejection, that the client wouldn’t have an interest in speaking directly with her or that she wouldn’t be able to even understand her accented Spanish. Lucy later told me,

So, I asked where she was from, and I was expecting some normal response like, “Oh, I’m from Guatemala or El Salvador,” and that’s it, but she responded with “well, I’m from El Salvador, and you? Are you white?” [Y tu eres gringita también?]. She was referencing the white lawyer there with us, asking if I was also white. So I explained to her, “yes, I’m white, but I’m also Mexican.” And she replied, “ahhhhh, es explica todo.”

For Lucy, this comment was a form of recognition; while she looked like the other white woman in the room, she was also seen as Latina. “I thought to myself, this is so sweet,” Lucy shared. She continued,

Within just a few seconds of meeting me, this woman understands where I’m coming from, when I feel like I’ve been so misunderstood for such a long time. This place, it’s an easy place to belong to, in this prison of outcasts where everyone feels like they don’t belong. You find a sense of belonging to a group of people that feel like they don’t belong. I wasn’t expecting to have that. Working with the women really taught me a lot about my identity in a way that I could’ve really only learned from them.

In working with asylum-seekers, recognizing their experiences, their identities, their pains, and their joys was an important element of the care work done by advocates. In moments like this, care clearly circulated back around. The “difference” recognized by this detained mother was actually a form of similitude; that, in and of itself, was an unexpected yet deeply desired expression of care for Lucy, even if the mother hadn’t intended it as such.

This is just one example, one small (but significant) way in which individual advocates felt a reciprocation of care, a kind of attention and recognition that they needed or desired but didn’t expect or ask for from those they were meant to help.

RP: In your article, you propose the concept of legal care as “the ways in which legal practitioners perform as caregivers” (329). Do you think that this idea of legal care can transform our broader understanding of legal professions and the work that legal advocates do, even beyond carceral settings like these family detention centers?

ER: I absolutely believe that the idea of legal care can have broader implications for the work of legal actors (lawyers, advocates, judges, etc.) even beyond carceral settings like these. Strangely enough, in my fieldwork, I observed that advocates only very rarely used the language of care to describe what they did. What they were doing, as they themselves characterized it, was legal work—legal aid or legal advocacy. Because of this, it was only later in the fieldwork that I came around to the use of care as a way to make sense of the various labors, emotional/affective commitments, and forms of relations in which they were engaged in their legal work. One could argue that these family detention facilities were unique and ultimately exceptional spaces that provided a special environment for legal and care work to intermingle. However, in talking with these advocates, especially those associated in their work with marginalized communities, I came to understand the various ways in which care permeates the kinds of roles they play with clients and their families and friends. On many occasions, the advocates would relate the encounters they were having while caring for detainees in Dilley or Karnes with other clients they had at different times in their lives—the people, the cases who remained with them. They expressed intimacies and forms of relationality that I felt crossed well across the boundaries of what we typically understand as legal work. I hope that the concept of legal care provides an opportunity to see the blurring of labors and emotional/affective relations that happen with legal actors in their work in a variety of contexts. I also believe, like other care scholars, that recognizing care work as incredibly valuable is a critical task. Identifying legal work as care work, across contexts, is the first step toward improving the conditions under which legal advocates labor, making visible the various forms of labors and relations in which they are engaged with those they serve, and that might otherwise go unrecognized.

RP: Amid the many rules and restrictions that are imposed and in the presence of constant surveillance in the detention centers, offering care within such charged environments is a formidable task. As a volunteer yourself, and based on your interactions with other legal advocates, how do you think the capacity to carry out the work of legal care changes across the time that one spends in these detention centers? Further, how do the caregiving legal advocates themselves cope with the stresses and fatigue of their work of providing legal care?

ER: The legal advocacy communities at the center of my research expressed two related but distinct goals of their work: one, to provide everyday legal assistance to the detained parents and children with the effect of securing their release (and not deportation) from the facilities, and two, to effect the eventual closure of these facilities, which they believed to be both unnecessary and harmful to detained families. With that latter goal in mind, many advocates serving detainees in the centers believed the end of their work and the closure of the centers to be fairly imminent. Their role in the centers, providing direct, everyday services to detainees, was not meant to be permanent; it was a response to an emergency in which families were being mistreated, legal cases were being mishandled, and refugees were being expeditiously shuffled through what were effectively deportation proceedings. However, in the case of modern family detention, what was meant as a temporary solution responding to an emergency on the supposed cusp of its own dissolution, ended up unwittingly transitioning to a more permanent situation. Thus, the work of legal advocates and their care was deeply affected by this, because it wasn’t clear if these facilities would ever be closed and their functioning remained practically within a state of emergency. Moreover, advocates’ care required constant adaptation amid ongoing shifts in administrations, leadership, and policy changes. In this way, at least within spaces such as these family detention centers, legal advocates’ care was constructed through unpredictability, a sort of impermanent permanence. I speak more in my dissertation about the ways in which facility administrators came to depend upon legal advocates’ constant presence, and voluntary administrative labor, as a way to bolster their image as a caring environment. This ultimately affected the ability of advocates to accomplish their second caregiving role of having these facilities closed.

Legal caregiving in these facilities speaks to the complexity of care work given over both brief and extended periods of time. And those advocates who found themselves associated with the work for longer periods of time, especially, struggled deeply with the emotional labor and traumatic impacts of their experiences in these roles. This is something with which I struggled and continue to cope. The trauma that we experienced in these positions often affected our ability to give care and to care for ourselves. Each advocate approached their response to the traumatic qualities of the work differently, but what most shared was the inability to locate space to cope. The environment of the facilities—in their unrelenting and shifting infliction of harm on detainees—afforded little time or space for advocates to process their own pain.

RP: Do you think that the deprivations within the family detention facilities, whether material or of contact and relationality, make the legal process of asylum-seeking into an experience of incarceration? I would also like to learn more about your own everyday experiences of conducting fieldwork in such deprived and carceral environments.

ER: I think the fact that these detainees are undergoing a deeply complex and exclusionary legal process—asylum—while incarcerated with their children/parents makes this a unique carceral experience, at least in the United States. The limitations and exclusions of asylum law certainly add an element of confinement. It’s important to add that, like many migrant detention facilities in the United States, these centers exist in rural communities far away from the sorts of legal resources they need (thus the existence of these mobile legal advocacy projects). This, among other things, compounds the isolating effects of incarceration.

The deprivations of these environments affected my research in many ways, so I had to work a bit creatively. As a result of both my commitment to the work of these projects and significant Institutional Review Board (IRB) restrictions, I elected to commit myself full time as an advocate with these projects. I worked alongside fellow advocates, helped prepare clients for their interviews and attended with them, colored and played with children, helped mothers fill out paperwork, scanned files, and uploaded legal documentation, among many other tasks. In the field, I would also have informal conversations with my interlocutors and record notes about observations that I would later expound upon in my fieldnotes. I made drawings to reflect the spaces within (as photos weren’t allowed) and collected others’ depictions of the spaces. Because I spent most of my time within the facilities serving these projects, I had little time to write proper fieldnotes, so I made audio recordings as I drove to and from the facilities. I conducted nearly all my formal interviews with advocates after they had left their work with these projects. Most of these interviews were done over the phone, sitting in my car outside the centers, on the drive home, sometimes in a parking lot of a gas station. Because my primary commitment was to the critical and time-sensitive work of these projects, I didn’t want my research to interfere in any way, so I shaped my work around the gaps, moments that others carved out for me and that I could find beyond my help to detained families. What I found in this approach were advocates who were willing, supportive, and flexible with this kind of “messy” research. In many ways, this project mimicked the work of the advocates in these centers; it was unpredictable, ad hoc, using whatever tools, whatever slivers of time and opportunity might be available at a given moment.

Excerpt of notes taken during asylum interview accompaniment, with the rendering of asylum officer (upper right) from the advocate/client perspective. Notes also reference the noise interference outside the room during the detainee’s interview. Notes and photo by Erin Routon.

RP: It is fascinating to observe art and drawing as a common medium, which on the one hand, keeps children engaged and entertained, and on the other hand, provides legal advocates a means to document life within the extremely surveilled environments of the detention facilities. What is it about drawing and art that appeals to these various actors within these carceral settings and what purposes do they serve?

ER: On many occasions in these centers, I watched as children, otherwise withdrawn and somber, quietly ambled toward a table full of other children coloring, some making elaborate drawings. Of course, children in these facilities came in with different experiences, different degrees of trauma, and while some loved to laugh and explain every tiny detail of their artistic work to us advocates sitting with them, others clearly had no desire to talk. Those moments in which children could, if they wanted, sit silently among other children and simply color a printed picture of Batman or make an outline of their hands were precious. They didn’t have to answer questions about the gangs that threatened them at school or cry about losing a family member in a shooting, and they also didn’t have to listen intently to their parent talking tearfully about these things to a stranger in a small, cold room. In my view, drawing and coloring in those moments was more than a distracting activity; it was a breath.

I am a huge advocate of artistic representation in and of these facilities. In my research, I collected many drawings, graphic documents, and representations as artifacts of the experiences of detainees and advocates and the work of these projects. These are both spaces and experiences that are often intentionally hidden from public view, so representation in diverse media forms is incredibly informative (and necessary). There’s a clear reason why photography is prohibited within and around the grounds of these centers. Artistic representation of hidden spaces and experiences, such as these, is a political gesture. It exposes and illuminates lived realities. I hope to share more of these artistic representations and graphic depictions in future publications as well as collect newer pieces as I continue research on carceral care.