Part of the Diversity and Inclusion Blog Post Series
The road to Dilley, Texas, is a long one from Jackson, Mississippi, where I live. In February, 2019 I flew from Jackson to Houston, Texas, then on to San Antonio, Texas, where I rented a car and drove to Dilley the next day. Dilley is off I-35 South, a little over an hour’s drive from San Antonio. It is in a flat rural area about 85 miles north of the Mexican border at Laredo, Texas. The population of Dilley, which is in Frio County, was estimated at 4,400 in 2017. Nestled in Dilley are two prisons, which I hadn’t known. One is the Dolph Briscoe Unit, a Texas State prison that houses approximately 1,384 adult male offenders. I noticed the Briscoe Unit when I drove past a field on my way to the South Texas Family Residential Center (Center), and I saw a man on horseback wearing a cowboy hat overseeing what appeared to be inmates working in a field. Right down the road from Briscoe is the Center, the other prison in Dilley.
At the time of my visit, the Center was a migrant detention facility for women and children, mainly from Central America. I was visiting the Center to volunteer with the Immigration Justice Campaign as part of a group of lawyers and interpreters tasked with assisting migrants with their credible fear interviews. At that time, when a migrant crossed the border into the United States without a visa with the intention of seeking asylum, she was sometimes detained with her child or children, and offered a credible fear interview with a Department of Homeland Security U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer. The detainee had to establish to the satisfaction of the officer that she had an actual or “credible” fear of returning to her country of origin pursuant to international asylum laws prior to filing an asylum claim. Asylum laws state that she may receive asylum, which is a place of refuge and protection, in the United States if she meets certain requirements. Those requirements include a fear of returning to her home county due to past or future persecution based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion and/or membership in a particular social group. The law requires that a person file for asylum within one year of arrival to the U.S.
I spent six days in the town of Dilley, five of them at the detention facility. Most of the detainees I saw in Dilley were from Central America. Over those days there appeared to be even more thousands of women and children, but the maximum population is 2,400 and numbers rarely hover above 1,500. Most had light skin and I guessed were probably a mixture of European and Native American indigenous descent. A few had dark skin and I supposed were likely members of the African diaspora, and like me, were descendants of the slave trade between Africa and the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries. I helped prepare several women for their credible fear interviews. Closer to the end of the week I interviewed a Garifuna woman from Honduras. I had lived in Honduras for ten months between 1991 and 1992 and worked as an English teacher in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa through a grant from the U.S. Information Agency, now part of the U.S. Department of State.
I was familiar with the Garifuna people, some of whom I had met when I lived in Honduras. According to some historians, Garifunas are the descendants of the Caribs, an indigenous people of the Lesser Antilles. By several accounts, in the 17th and 18th centuries Caribs on St. Vincent island intermarried with African slaves whom they captured in raids on European settlements, or who escaped their western captors. They became known as Black Caribs, who were eventually deported around 1797 to the island of Roatan, now part of Honduras. The deportees managed to survive, reestablish their culture and migrate to the Central American mainland, settling primarily along the eastern coasts in what is now Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize. Today, the Garifunas have their own culture and language, but usually also speak fluent Spanish, and English in Belize, a former British colony that is now a Commonwealth realm.
The Garifuna woman I helped prepare was in her early 30s, dark brown and a bit plump, like me. In the short time I knew her we seemed to bond easily making the connection that we were both Africans born and raised in the Americas. She had made the long, tumultuous and difficult migration with her young son by land from Honduras to Mexico and entered the U.S. hoping to seek asylum here, falling into the arms of border patrol agents. Her son fidgeted and clung to her as we spoke. We seemed to feel comfortable with each other. At the beginning of our meeting I introduced myself as a volunteer attorney and I revealed that I had briefly lived in Honduras, albeit a long time ago. I speak and understand a fair amount of Spanish, but I am not fluent. Despite my halting Spanish, the Garifuna woman was very cooperative and revealed a lot of about her life to me so that I could aid her with her credible fear claim. I was able to ask questions of her, at times with the aid of a telephonic interpreter, and explain to her the credible fear process in Spanglish (a mixture of Spanish and English). She seemed to understand. Near the end of our meeting (with no telephonic interpreter present) she asked me if I was indeed an attorney. I told her yes. Then she said, in a kind way, that she had never met a black attorney before. She seemed to really be pleased that we had met and that from among the other volunteer attorneys at the Center, who were white, she had been matched with me.
A few days later I checked the online data system Innovation Law Lab and it appeared that my first Garifuna “client” had met with success in her credible fear interview. It made me feel happy, again, that I had chosen the long and winding path (for me) of becoming an immigration attorney, a legal field which, statistically, few women of the African diaspora in the United States have chosen.