“Welcome to the United States.” This is what refugees and asylum seekers should hear when they first arrive in the United States, but unfortunately it is a welcome that often comes excruciatingly late, if at all.
Met instead by being thrown into temporary jail-like facilities that have gained nicknames such as “the ice box” and “the pound,” the message many asylum seekers from Central America receive from employees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CPB), the detention facility staff and the U.S. government itself is very clearly, “We will send you back.”
After a week spent as a volunteer in Dilley, Texas, at the South Texas Family Residential Center, here are some of my reflections on the stories, strength, and resilience of women and children asylum seekers I met.
The majority of the women and children detained in Dilley, along with thousands of others who entered the U.S. during the surge of the summer of 2014, traveled from one of the Northern Triangle countries of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Almost all of the women and children speak Spanish, as do many of the detention facility staff. However, some women speak indigenous languages and either speak limited Spanish as their second language or do not speak Spanish at all. These women have a particularly difficult time in detention because the resources provided to the women are provided in Spanish, and indigenous language interpreters are very difficult to obtain.
The indigenous language speakers are very much isolated within the center because they cannot effectively communicate with the other detained women, detention center staff, asylum officers or legal counsel. The CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, which is providing legal assistance in Dilley, does have access to an indigenous language interpreter phone line that enables communication between legal volunteers and clients.
Many of the women and children, who are detained after they cross the southern border of the United States, are asylum seekers. Approximately 85 percent of those detained in Dilley, and 88 percent of all women and children detained, receive a positive determination in their interviews for whether they meet the bar for having credible fear of harm if returned to their homes. The credible fear interview is with an asylum officer who screens their claim for a “significant possibility” of succeeding in an asylum case in front of an immigration judge. Passing this interview is the first step in being determined eligible to begin an application for asylum in the United States.
Many of the women fled unimaginable threats of violence in their home countries. Gang rapes of young women who refuse to become involved in a gang, brutal violence from domestic partners or husbands who refuse to let them file for divorce or leave the relationship, threats from gang members to kill women, kidnap their children, or kill the families of those who do not comply with recruitment or other demands are just a few of the fears often expressed.
As a volunteer with the CARA project, I was able to speak with the women and children detained in the center. Many had crossed the border only days before, either by crossing the Rio Grande or by approaching immigration officials at a border checkpoint and declaring their fear of returning to their country.
As volunteers, our role was to educate women about the detention process, basic asylum law, credible fear Interviews and the release process. Legal volunteers meet individually with women to prepare them for their credible fear interviews and to prepare affidavits for bond hearings or for negative credible fear review hearings.
As legal volunteers, we set up each day in a visitation trailer just inside the security checkpoint for the entire detention facility. Lawyers and volunteers from the CARA Project are not allowed beyond the legal visitation trailer or the court trailer. At 7:30 a.m., we were met by 30-50 women and children awaiting their morning meeting with a volunteer. In the afternoons, at least that many were waiting again. Mothers waited with their children who ranged in age from just a few months to 17 years old. Sounds of crying, coughing, and sneezing were constant as we worked through the week. Detention was especially difficult for the children who were old enough to understand what was going on.
Many mothers reported that their children started crying through the entire night, a 12-year-old would start wetting the bed again, or that their children simply refused to eat. Other mothers reported waiting for hours in the detention center’s clinic for medical treatment for a child’s fever, headache, stomach ache or other complaints, only being told to put ice cubes under their armpits, to drink honey and water, that the child had allergies. The lucky were given a Tylenol to help with the pain.
Legally, the situation was not much better. In one bond hearing I observed, the immigration judge began the hearing by saying, “I have a policy of setting high bonds. Knowing this, would you like to continue?” A bond hearing should be an individualized determination of a specific client’s flight risk and potential of danger to the community. Yet this judge made it clear that she would not make an individualized determination.
The client said she wanted to continue with the bond hearing, which consisted of a two-hour inquiry into her contacts in the United States and probed into her asylum claim. The government attorney argued several times that the simple act of declining release with an ankle monitor (which allows clients to leave without cost) made the woman an even greater flight risk. At the end of the hearing, despite the client herself saying that she knows the only way for her to secure her safety and asylum status in the United States is for her to appear at all her future immigration court hearings, the immigration judge set a $7,000 bond, one of the highest Dilley had seen yet.
Despite the depressing and infuriating conditions, I still left Dilley inspired by the strength and resilience of these women and their children. They had experienced some of the most violent things I had ever heard of in my life. Yet they had found the courage to leave their countries and make the dangerous journey to the United States. They faced the uncertainty of their detention and their future in the United States with incredible strength and relentless hope. Women who cried during our interview prep sessions nodded their heads at the end with grace and firm resolution, knowing that they must recount the gruesome and intimate details of their persecution to the asylum officer the next day.
I also was inspired by the collaboration and teamwork of the legal volunteers who left their homes and work to band together, compassionately combining language and legal skills with the next volunteers to serve the women as best as we could.
As Americans, but more importantly as human beings, we must not overlook the refugee crisis happening in our own backyard. A large majority of the people fleeing their Central American homes are refugees -- people who have a legitimate fear of persecution in their home country on account of their religion, political opinion, nationality, ethnicity, or membership in a particular social group. The U.S. government should treat these asylum seekers with the dignity and due process they deserve in their pursuit to live a life free from violence.
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Kaitlin Talley is a second-year law student at the University of San Francisco. Her volunteer time in Dilley as part of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project was organized through Jesuit Refugee Service/USA in partnership with 13 Jesuit law schools who are working to assist families and children from Central America seeking protection in the United States.
This article is adapted from an article originally posted on the ImmigrationProf blog and was subsequently posted by Jesuit Refugee Service.