On-the-Ground Advocacy at a Women and Children’s Detention Center

3/13/19 Asylum

It is increasingly difficult to claim asylum in the U.S., even for those fleeing from some of the most violent and inhumane conditions in the Western hemisphere. After spending a week at a women and children’s detention center in Dilley, Texas, we witnessed the impact of the current Administration’s efforts to build walls, visible and invisible, against asylees and immigrants everywhere. Since former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ June 2018 decision in Matter of A-B-, persecuted migrants face additional obstacles when making asylum claims, especially women escaping political turmoil, gang violence, and domestic violence. While Grace v. Whittaker blocked the expedited removal proceedings that occurred immediately after A-B-, Grace was not in effect until December 2018, which meant five months of expedited deportations with little access to counsel and no opportunity to state their claim in credible fear interviews (CFI) in front of a USCIS Asylum Officer (AO).

The obstacles to asylum seekers are immense and there are countless ways due process is undermined. That’s why pro bono help is so important. On-the-ground programs such as the Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP) provide critical legal aid to detained women and children who need help as they face the labyrinth of U.S. asylum law. We recently participated in a volunteer trip to Dilley, TX, with a group of eleven students from Chicago-Kent College of Law. We went to a remote town off I-35 and entered the South Texas Family Residential Center, run by CoreCivic, a corporation which owns and manages detention centers and private prisons.

We spent almost all of our time in the visitation trailer where DPBP works, preparing women and children for their CFIs. We passed through long security lines and never left the trailer without a CoreCivic guard. Detainees wore microfleece track suits and machine-knit garments in fluorescent colors–impossible to miss. For some in our group, this was their first exposure to U.S. asylum law. Others had already been to Dilley and faced a stark reality: U.S. immigration laws had regressed as domestic violence and gang activity were no longer slam dunk cases. After A-B-, USCIS began rejecting asylum claims by domestic violence survivors and others facing persecution by private or non-state actors. Despite Judge Emmett Sullivan’s later decision in Grace, the impact of the dicta in A-B- remained largely unchanged.

Our group met with hundreds of women at different stages of their asylum process. Some had just arrived from the perreras and hieleras, processing facilities where they were first detained and subjected to inhumane treatment. Some were separated from their adult children and needed help locating them to link their cases. Some had only been at Dilley a few days while others had been stuck there for months with no release date in sight. Many women were able to articulate their claims, but others required accommodations related to rare language barriers and head injuries from domestic violence. We spoke with them for hours about their journeys and the lives they left behind. They trusted us with their darkest memories and deepest fears. It was heartbreaking hearing these accounts, but frustration and anger were our driving forces. We were frustrated because we had to subject these women to discuss the most intimate and traumatic details of their lives, and then we were forced to explain that their traumas just “weren’t enough” under U.S. asylum law.

Many of us found the invasive interrogatory process sickening. Our “breakthroughs” meant someone had just recounted some of the most harrowing memories. Helpful fact patterns were described as “Dilley good.” We knew these events would be exceptionally difficult to place on timelines, but we knew AOs would be asking for these details in length. Clients often had to call home to gather more information, a potentially risky move and an overwhelming experience for those who had not spoken to their loved ones since their departure. While these calls were intense, they were essential to verify information and often revealed additional facts to support their claims. Many were reluctant to call, some refused, and we understood their skepticism. While they were able to escape with their children, they had to leave other loved ones behind and at risk. We had to constantly reassure them that DPBP was not affiliated with ICE, CBP, CoreCivic, or any government agency. We had to remind them of our ultimate goal: to end family detention permanently.

DPBP never sends anyone to their interview until they are ready, and while claims were harder to articulate, they were ultimately made. When the detained population numbers allow, DPBP volunteers can accompany some women to their interviews, but the volunteer’s participation is entirely subject to the AO’s approval. Some allow volunteers to provide additional line of questioning, interpreter corrections, and closing statements. Others allow very little advocacy. Returning volunteers also saw the drastic change in the detained population size. This year, the numbers were low – very low. This may sound like a positive statistic, but DPBP volunteers still prepared as many women as possible, well in advance of their interviews, in case of sudden influx. DPBP’s suspicions were validated just 2 weeks after we left, when the detained population numbers shot back up by the hundreds.

There is an immediate need for volunteers at DPBP and similar immigration advocacy projects through the Immigration Justice Campaign. With so many opportunities available, including remote interpreter and data management work, it is simple to get involved – especially if you are a Spanish-speaker. We urge all those who believe in our cause to #EndFamilyDetention to get involved. The Dilley Pro Bono Project page offers more information.

by Alex George and Carolina Solano