As I escorted a young mother and her four-year-old son into one of the small meeting rooms at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, I could tell that the little boy was exhausted as he climbed slowly into his mother’s lap. His mom Daisy* told me he had a fever. I asked her if she had seen a doctor, and she said that she planned to take him after our meeting. I introduced myself, explaining that I was a volunteer lawyer and that everything she told me was confidential. We encouraged the mothers to prepare for the interview without their children, so the children wouldn’t have to hear the sensitive information we had to discuss. When I asked Daisy though, her eyes filled up with tears and she said that he hadn’t left her side even for a minute since they left El Salvador several weeks ago. So, we began the discussion with her boy, now fast asleep, in her arms.
I explained I was going to listen to her story so I could help her prepare for her credible fear interview with the Asylum Office the next day. It was at that point that Daisy, a 22-year-old single mother, completely broke down. I pushed a nearly empty box of tissues toward her so that it was within her reach.
Daisy, now crying, told me her story. She had endured years of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of her son’s father, Diego*. Diego was a jealous, angry, and violent man. He wouldn’t allow her to speak to other men or to leave the house without him. He threatened, beat, and raped her. He threatened their child. Daisy recounted a night when he became so enraged that Diego slit the boy’s cheek and pointed to the scar on her son’s face as she continued. She had fled to her mother’s house, but quickly realized that she was being followed by gang members who one day approached her, grabbed her, and told her that if she ever reported Diego to the authorities, they would kill her and her child. This was when she decided she had to leave the country.
The next afternoon, I was escorted by a guard to the “Edificio de Asilo” (Asylum Building) to meet Daisy for her interview. When I entered the waiting room, I saw the family sitting quietly. I stopped to greet them, but was told by the guard that I wasn’t allowed to sit with or talk to them. I was ushered to another waiting room, separated by a wall from my client. After about 20 minutes, a male officer approached and called Daisy’s name. We all followed the officer down the hall. When we entered his office, Daisy whispered to her son, reminding him that he had to be quiet. I could tell that Alberto was still not feeling well. He had caught pink eye, which was spreading among the children that week, and had developed a cough.
The three of us sat facing the officer’s desk. The officer called a Spanish interpreter on speaker phone. The phone’s microphone faced the officer, making it difficult for Daisy and the interpreter to clearly hear and understand each other. As the interview proceeded, I had to speak up on several occasions, including correcting misheard information about dates and names, which could have easily been used against Daisy later.
The little boy was trying his best to be quiet, even trying to cough as softly as he could. The officer, however, became impatient with him. At one point, he stopped the interview and asked Daisy if she wanted to take him to the daycare. The officer complained that because he was being noisy, the interview was taking longer than it should, which was a problem because he really needed to finish by 4:00 pm — it was Friday afternoon after all. Daisy apologized and explained that her son had just received his vaccinations that day and that’s why he was a little fidgety. I told the officer that she had never left him before and that it would be more traumatic for Daisy to have to do so. He agreed to proceed with the interview.
As the interview continued, Daisy shared the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of Diego, weeping as she explained. A relentless line of questioning barraged her, including inquiries like, “How many times per week on average would you say he raped you?” I wondered how much her son understood and how much he would remember. Very slowly, he stood up and tiptoed across the room to where he spotted a box of tissues sitting on a chair. He carefully pulled out a tissue, tiptoed back to his mother, and handed it to her as she wept.
Two hours later, the interview was complete. As difficult as it was for Daisy, she showed incredible courage in sharing the horrific details of her experience. I wasn’t allowed the opportunity to pause and talk to her after the interview. The guard explained that we had to exit via different doors. As I was ushered away, I told her son what a good boy he had been. I walked outside, and I looked to my left to see the brave young mother carrying her brave little boy out the other door. We were separated by a tall chain link fence, but I waved and smiled at them, and they both waved back. I knew that I would never see them again and that I would most likely never learn of their fate, but I felt honored to have been a part of their lives if only for a very short time.
Given the immigration court backlogs, Daisy’s case is still nowhere near completion so I don’t know the end to the immigration story for her and her son. But I do know this: despite the obstacles to representation thrown in our path, trained volunteers make a huge difference in helping mothers and children face the credible fear process. If you can volunteer, in person or remotely, you too can make a difference – as a lawyer, as a translator, as a social worker, as an advocate. Find out about opportunities like volunteering in Dilley at www.aila.org/justice.