Stefan Babich recently traveled to Dilley, Texas, to volunteer with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. In this two-part blog post, he walks readers through his first day of volunteering and the mothers whose stories he heard. Click here to read Part 1.
What is it like hearing the life stories of the mothers and children? What impact does that have on you as a volunteer?
The stories I heard tended to follow one of several set patterns—women threatened by gangs, women with family members murdered by gangs, women asked to give up their savings or their children, women with drug-addicted, abusive spouses—but the details varied. It’s the details that the asylum officers use to determine the merits of each case, to decide whether each woman should be moved ahead to the next stage of the asylum process, so it’s important that these women be able to describe their experiences in—as I and the lawyer with whom I was working would tell them—“descriptive and clear language.”
So I listened to one mother tell me about how she was attacked by a man with a machete, then went to the police only to find a member of the same gang as the man who attacked her sitting at the front desk. I listened to another express the fear that an asylum officer will interview her young son, thus forcing him to recall traumas he was beginning to bury—such as the time his father beat his mother so badly she lost her unborn child.
I heard about how a local gang threatened to bomb an entire school full of children, about how they garrotted a woman’s brother in a public pool and hung her uncle’s naked corpse from a bridge, how they demanded that yet another mother turn her adolescent daughter over to be a gang leader’s sex slave, and I understand. These stories are, to put it bluntly, about as bad as it gets.
I can’t help but feel that even if these women make it through the asylum process, the cost will be terrible. No one should have to describe one’s rape, torture, or the death of one’s family members to a stony-faced, suspicious government official, especially not in front of one’s children. I did what I can to help, but I can’t help but feel that what these people really need isn’t a lawyer; it’s a psychologist.
Do you have any doubts about the stories the mothers share?
It might be easy to assume that these women are lying; but it’s important to remember that many of them have children outside the detention center. One woman, her eyes filled with tears, told me she brought her six-year-old, but was forced to leave her one-year-old baby behind. This is not the act of a woman who has come seeking a brighter tomorrow. This is the act of a woman seeking a tomorrow, period—an act of desperation.
“I didn’t want to leave,” another woman told me, sobbing. “But they threatened to kill my daughter.” She’s referring to the Mara Salvatruchas, one of Latin America’s most depraved and violent gangs. “They said they would kill her. She’s the only daughter I have.”
The girl—who might be anywhere between five and seven, I can’t now recall—was playing in the corner of the room at the time. I’m not sure if she even fully understood what was happening, or the fate she so narrowly escaped. But she saw her mother’s pain; she went to her, and put her arm around her. It was an intensely powerful moment. Before long we were all crying together.
This woman, and all those like her, are completely within their rights to be here. Women fleeing violence, fleeing the threat of persecution or death, fleeing governments that cannot or will not offer them protection, have the right to come to the United States and seek asylum, the equivalent of refugee status, under international law.
For daring to exercise this right, they are locked, first in holding cells called hieleras (literally “ice-box” in English), where they are threatened, insulted (“lying bitch,” for example), and sometimes separated from their traumatized children for days, before being transferred to detention facilities like the one in Dilley. If a woman arrives with a male family member over the age of eighteen, tough luck—that man will be carted off somewhere else, and it is up to the two of them to find a way to re-unite—the government certainly won’t help.
This isn’t the way one should treat desperate, traumatized asylum seekers. It is the way one treats dangerous invaders. And since that is the narrative that has been constructed around these women, it is difficult to effect any change in this brutal process.
How does the preparation process work?
Though the volunteer lawyers of the CARA project offer the women counsel and try to prepare them for their interviews, when it comes down to the interview itself, it’s just the women (and sometimes their children), the asylum officer, and an interpreter. No lawyer. No friendly faces. That’s because there just aren’t enough lawyers—there just isn’t enough time. There are too many people who need help. And though the volunteers do their best to prepare them, some are going to fail—not because their fear isn’t strong enough, and not because they’re lying, but just because of the nature of the law—and this, I found, was the hardest part to explain to the women themselves.
Asylum seekers have to demonstrate not only that they have a “Credible fear” of returning to their home country, but that their fear is based on membership in what is called a “particular social group”—a group of people with a common immutable characteristic, socially distinct within their society, and defined with particular boundaries so that one could discern who is a member of that group, and who is not. What those legal terms mean, of course, is exceedingly complicated.
It’s not an easy thing to explain to a woman whose brother was strangled to death in a public pool that even though what she is about to undergo is called a credible fear interview, it’s not just a matter of how credible she is, or how afraid. Instead, the difference between life and death for these women and their children is how well their fears can be categorized and labeled—as if their stories were Netflix movies being sorted into different genres. With Netflix, the more genres a movie falls into, the better the customers will know if they want to watch it (a dark, gritty family drama is more telling than just a simple drama). In Dilley, the more labels that can be applied to a person’s fear, the better off that person will usually be in an interview. A single Guatemalan mother is getting somewhere, but far better is a single indigenous-speaking Guatemalan mother extorted by gangs because she was a witness to a crime.
That woman might have a chance. But a woman randomly chosen to be raped and murdered by gang members might well not. Somehow, it is not the threat of death that matters, not even the level of danger, but the circumstantial details surrounding the danger. Sometimes, the difference between a case that passes the asylum interview and one that doesn’t can be something as seemingly irrelevant as whether or not one is married. It’s no wonder these women are so terrified, or so confused.
And when they come here looking for help, their terror and confusion is compounded by government officials locking them in ice-cold holding cells (where children and infants are denied access to bathrooms, so imagine the smell), by forcing them to sign papers or answer questions they can’t read or understand, by locking them in a prison with poor access to medical care and only limited communication with their families and friends. They are forced to recount their traumas before strangers; where they should find comfort, they find only suspicion. That last part of the process is a necessary evil, but the rest isn’t. These women and children could and should be free to wait for their asylum hearings in the homes of their friends and family, not in a jail.
Any final thoughts from your first day?
I remember that when I left the Dilley detention center after the first day, I noticed they were planting trees—not flowers, but trees—in the courtyard outside. Flowers would suggest a desire to make the place feel more homey and less intimidating, but trees are ominous. They’re a sign of permanence, of this private prison system digging in its heels, putting down roots. It’s clear someone thinks this detention center in Dilley will be around for quite a while.
I really hope they’re wrong.
Written by Stefan Babich, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer
If you are an AILA member, law student, paralegal, or translator, who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at firstname.lastname@example.org – we could really use your help.
If you would like to donate funds please see the American Immigration Council’s page dedicated to the fundraising effort.
To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.