My Week in Dilley, Serving Asylum Seekers Through the CARA Pro Bono Project | CLINIC

My Week in Dilley, Serving Asylum Seekers Through the CARA Pro Bono Project

Home » News by Type » Dilley Family Detention Cara » My Week in Dilley, Serving Asylum Seekers Through the CARA Pro Bono Project
Aug 25, 2015
H. Andrés Abella

More than 1,400 women and children—mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—are detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX. A significant number of these families come to the United States forced out of their communities by death threats, rape, extortion, or they are running away to keep their children from forced recruitment by the MS-13 or La 18 gangs. Others, particularly indigenous women from Guatemala, are fleeing domestic violence they have endured while living in remote areas where their male spouses or partners treated them and their children as little more than possessions.

I, along with three other Spanish-speaking CLINIC staff, volunteered for one week to serve asylum seekers at the detention center through the CARA Pro Bono Project, a collaboration of CLINIC, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The CARA Project coordinates pro bono legal representation for families detained in Dilley. As a CLINIC employee, I am committed to our mission of serving immigrants and defending their rights. In my position as a fundraiser and grants manager, I do not have the opportunity for direct interaction with the population I am passionate about serving. I volunteered with CARA to directly advocate for the most vulnerable of immigrant families.

Neither the long drive from San Antonio to the detention center, located in a rural area blazed by a scorching heat, nor the severe security measures—a metal detector; an x-ray scanner; and no phones, cameras, or recording devices permitted (among other restrictions) prepared me for my first encounter with the women and children I was to be assisting. As I walked to the visitation area through the airtight auto-locked doors which sealed the pathway behind me, I saw before me women barely old enough to carry their dreams, locked in a detention center holding their listless toddlers; and young children, visibly sick and withering.

As a volunteer, my first day at Dilley started by documenting an asylum officer’s interview of a Mam-speaking Mayan woman and her teenage daughter. Frustration was palpable despite the efforts of the two interpreters on the speakerphone, with one interpreter translating the asylum officer’s questions from English to Spanish while the other translating that translation from Spanish to Mam and vice versa. Nuance and meaning flew out the window, lost in translation. Being a non-native English speaker, it was hard to know that this young woman’s future well-being depended on the piecemeal ability of some voices over the phone.

These women are forced to navigate the intricacies of a legal system that demands meeting a certain standard to legitimize their sorrows and fears as ‘credible.’ I helped prepare a number of them for their Credible Fear Interviews. Asking these women if they were afraid to go back to their countries—especially those who have been beaten, raped, or have had their loved ones killed—felt traumatic to say the least. It was impossible not to be alarmed, especially for the children, who are being subjected to an unbelievable amount of emotional distress. I noticed that for some six- and seven-year olds, talking about the judge they saw during the day or about their bond hearings had become normal.

The lawyers and other professionals who volunteer their time week after week with CARA provide invaluable services to these women, such as documenting their cases, compiling the documents they need to request bond, and preparing them for interviews and hearings with ICE officers and immigration judges. It was extremely difficult to detach ourselves from the emotional aspect of this job. If I, a volunteer, had such a strong emotional reaction from one weeks work, how much more do families living through this feel and experience?

After a week in Dilley, I left with burning questions: why does the U.S. government imprison the most vulnerable of asylum seekers? Why does it try to deter them from coming to the U.S. to seek protection to which they are entitled under international law? Even though I know these questions will go unanswered, there are concrete and tangible steps to take on behalf of these women and their families. Educate those around you about the injustice of detaining women and children who are seeking asylum and advocate against these unreasonable policies. Pray for the physical and emotional welfare of these families. If you speak Spanish, volunteer with CARA. My message is fairly simple: stand in support and solidarity with these families, take action!