EJA Fellow Aids Families Separated at the Southern US Border

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Behind the Wall - One EJA Fellow’s Stories from inside an Immigration Detention Center

July 17, 2018
By Megan Rauch Griffard

"For the women and children in the detention center... life is far from comfortable. Successfully making it out of the detention center is a matter of life or death. Jones said that’s one thing she wishes people understood better."

Once upon a time, Dilley, a small town in southern Texas, was best known as a shipping hub for watermelon, peanuts and cattle. A statue of a half-eaten watermelon was erected in the town’s center in 1965, a promise of the town’s fruitfulness and possibility.

As the 20th century progressed and agriculture became less integral to the American economy, industry in Dilley suffered. Residents struggled to find work—a challenge that persists today, as nearly one-third of Dilley residents live below the Federal Poverty Level.

The narrative for Dilley began to change course in 2014, when the Department of Homeland Security chose the town as the site for the new South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest immigrant detention center in the U.S. The center was created as a holding facility for women and children asylum-seekers from Latin American countries ravaged by wars, drugs, and gang violence. When the center opened, it became “a lightning rod in the nationwide debate about immigration and the legality of family detention,” according to a 2016 New York Times article.

After that news cycle ran dry, Dilley returned to relative quiet, albeit with a second, larger 2,400-bed detention center that became the town’s largest employer. On average, the facility is home to an estimated 1,539 women and children -- a mere 10 percent of the 15,852 immigrants in custody in Texas, according to Freedom for Immigrants, a non-profit aimed at abolishing immigrant detention centers.

Though its centers do not separate children from their parents, Dilley nevertheless became a focal point of the immigration debate again when news broke recently that families were being separated at the border.

“Before we were on the news, we were begging people to come help us,” Equal Justice America Fellow Laura Jones said.

Jones, a rising second-year law student at UCLA, is part of a team of lawyers and volunteers assisting the detained women navigating the legal process. She decided to apply for a position with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid after attending a student event where former volunteers and the project's Director, Shay Fluharty, spoke about their experiences and the need in the region.

Seeking asylum in the U.S. is lengthy and complicated. “Dilley is just very beginning of the process,” Jones explained.
“The interview process is not trauma-informed,” Jones explained. “These women are expected to talk about something that isn’t easy to talk about. Many people, even after years of counseling, wouldn’t be able to talk about things like gang rape.”
At the South Texas Family Residential Center and other detention centers like it, the first step is for the asylum seeker to establish credible fear in an interview with an ICE official. This means that the individual must be able to show there is grave danger that she or her children will be killed or harmed if they return to their country of origin.

Each day, Jones and fellow advocates help prepare between 50 and 100 women for their interviews. First, they gather 15-20 women at a time in a circle to explain the process and answer any questions. Then, lawyers and volunteers consult the women on an individual basis.

If the ICE official determines that a woman has failed to establish credible fear, then the woman and her representatives may file a request for redetermination (RFR). To compile an RFR, Jones, who is fluent in Spanish, carefully analyzes the interview transcripts and works with the subject to ensure that her story is clear, credible, and correctly translated.

After that, the RFR goes before a judge, who makes the final decision on whether the woman can move forward in the process. According to Jones, judges in South Texas are unlikely to reverse ICE’s determinations. In 24 of 26 cases she’s recently assisted with, the judge affirmed the original decision from ICE.

Leaving the detention center does not mean a woman and her children have been granted asylum. Rather, it means they are must fight for their case outside the detention center. This requires the woman and her children to find housing, food, income, and an immigration lawyer.

What Jones finds particularly troubling about the process is the interview itself. The interview is critical for establishing why an asylum seeker needs to stay in the country, but it is extremely hard for an interviewee to be successful.

“The interview process is not trauma-informed,” Jones explained. “These women are expected to talk about something that isn’t easy to talk about. Many people, even after years of counseling, wouldn’t be able to talk about things like gang rape.”

Jones continued that women arrive at the detention center, and within weeks are expected to share the intimate details of extremely traumatic events with a complete stranger.

She recalled working on one case where the woman had been raped by a family member and then gang raped. These memories were too painful for the woman to share with the ICE officer during her interview, and as a result, she received her initial asylum request was denied. Later in court, a psychologist attempted to explain the woman’s situation and how victims often struggle to share their traumas, but still the judge affirmed ICE’s decision.

“It’s horrible to think that [the woman] couldn’t tell this complete stranger the most horrific thing that happened to her, and it could mean the end of her life,” Jones said. “Every single woman has a case. There hasn’t been a single woman who’s walked through the door without cause. The trip itself is so difficult that they don’t come without a good reason. Every woman and child is escaping some violence, rape, or death threat.”

Jones said she cannot speak to the living conditions of the women and children housed at the South Texas center. She and the other lawyers and volunteers meet with the women in visitation trailers at the edge of the complex.

“I haven’t seen the beds or the cafeteria, so I don’t really know what it’s like in there for them for them” she said, “But the women know the days that they’ve been there. They count them. That says a lot. They say they’ve been there 25 days or 31 days. They don’t enjoy being there.”

Jones added that there is a school and daycare for the children to attend, depending on their age. “The kids get really bored with being here too,” she said.

While at the detention center, families are stripped of all personal belongings. All detainees are dressed given the same attire: jeans or sweatpants, solid colored t-shirts, and hats.

“It’s not a prison uniform, but it’s not not a prison uniform either,” Jones observed.

Detainees are also restricted in how often they can call family members, including men at other detention centers. The website for the South Texas Family Residential Center, for example, features this warning: “Residents cannot receive incoming calls. If you need to get in touch with a resident to leave an urgent message, you must call (830) 378-6500 and leave the resident’s full name, alien registration number and your name and telephone number where you can be reached. The resident will be given your message.”

Communication is particularly challenging for parents who are desperately hoping to be reunited with their children, according to Jones. She worked with a mother who had first been detained with her children at the South Texas detention center. The woman’s children were granted positives from the asylum officers and released to another state, but the woman was relocated to a different detention center in Texas.

“This detention center is a co-ed detention center, that to me, is indistinguishable from prisons I have visited,” said Jones. “[The woman] arrived in the legal visitation room in a blue prison outfit and told me her story. Communicating with her children was difficult because the phone system there is extremely expensive. I and other lawyers were able to contribute to her call fund so she could communicate with her family. After one month, she got one free phone call from the detention center. The amount of unknown information was the most frustrating part. She did not know who was watching her kids. She knew the name of the caseworker, but what parent would be satisfied with that? She wanted to see the conditions her kids were in, who their teacher and therapists were, what the food was like, why her kids didn't get to sleep in the same room, etc. I helped write declarations for her case and I spoke with the kids twice a week so I could answer any questions they had about their mom.”
“These are very real reasons why people come here, and all of them are truly bona fide asylum seekers. Many of them don’t want to be here. They want to go home, but their lives are in danger,” she said.
While working at the detention center, Jones has seen more than her share of heartbreak, but there are occasional moments of joy that reaffirm her passion for helping the asylum seekers. “When somebody receives a positive decision, you can’t help but celebrate,” she said.

Still, celebrating at a detention center is difficult. Any sort of physical contact between workers and detainees is strictly prohibited. Jones recalled one volunteer who was banned for life after rubbing the back of an asylum seeker who began crying during interview preparations.

“Sometimes you just want to hug them, but you can’t really connect on a level they wish they could and you wish you could too,” Jones said.

The outcomes are often frustrating and heartbreaking as well. One parent whom Jones attempted to assist had been kept handcuffed and in solitary confinement because, according to Jones, ICE officials believed she had associations with gang members.

“When I met with her the first time the guard warned me that the woman I was meeting with was in ‘high security’ and she wanted to make sure ‘I knew what I was getting myself into,’” said Jones. “They brought this mom to me in an orange jumpsuit, handcuffed, and asked if I would prefer to keep her handcuffed while I talked to her. I obviously said no, and as soon as the guards were gone, she just cried.”

During their conversation, the woman revealed that her daughter was very sick when they arrived in the U.S., and that they had been separated at the border. Jones was able to track down the child and speak to her case manager. The woman was then released from solitary confinement and her handcuffs removed.

And then, only days later, the woman was transported to a detention center four hours away, rendering it impossible for Jones to continue providing legal services.

The experience of living in Dilley has been interesting for Jones, who previously served as a Teach for America Corps member in Houston. For a town of 4,000 residents and three sit-down restaurants, the presence of the South Texas Family Residential Detention Center makes Dilley fraught with tensions. Temporary workers like Jones often brush up against civic employees who are often long-term residents of the town.

“We try to be super kind and have the best relationship with them we can, but it’s definitely really hard to be working alongside people who are imprisoning children,” Jones said.

Moreover, as New York Times reporters observed in 2016, many of the residents of this desperately poor town resent the seemingly comfortable living conditions of the detainees compared to their daily struggles on the outside. “Why do they get everything, when we work so hard to get the little we have?” they asked reporter James Naughton.

For the women and children in the detention center, however, life is far from comfortable. Successfully making it out of the detention center is a matter of life or death. Jones said that’s one thing she wishes people understood better.

“These are very real reasons why people come here, and all of them are truly bona fide asylum seekers. Many of them don’t want to be here. They want to go home, but their lives are in danger,” she said.

Fighting back tears, Jones added, “Sometimes, though, they’ll say, ‘Send me back. Dying in my country is better than the treatment and the attitudes I’ve received here.’ To me, that’s unacceptable.”

In the future, Jones intends to continue working professionally in immigration law. She plans to come back to South Texas as a volunteer as well.

Since the immigration debate has ramped up in the news, the Dilley center is no longer short on staffing. “The volunteer coordinator gets about 1,000 emails a day from people wanting to help. I think we’ve got volunteers lined up through the end of 2018,” Jones said.

You can support Laura Jones’s work in south Texas and the work of other Equal Justice America fellows here.

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