Behind the Wall
The first thing the students noticed as they walked into the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, was the color: highlighter yellows, neon greens, electric blues.
They were the colors of government-issued uniforms worn by the facility's hundreds of residents, all women and children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum in the United States. The loud clothing stood in stark contrast to the rest of the sprawling compound of dusty tan buildings housing crying children, anxious mothers, armed guards, hurried attorneys and social workers.
Most of the families there journeyed thousands of miles fleeing extreme violence in their home countries. If they are to have any chance of staying, they must pass a credible fear interview in which an immigration officer evaluates their stories — stories a team of UW students and faculty helped them tell.
“For most, it’s a life or death moment,” said Noelle Symanski, a 2L UW Law student with pink streaks in her hair. “It’s the difference between starting over in the United States and being sent back home.”
Symanski traveled to Dilley with classmates Sydney Bay, a Spanish-speaking 2L from Texas; Kylie Fisher, a 2L from the Seattle area; and Lisa Kelly, Bobbe & Jon Bridge Professor of Child Advocacy who directs the Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic (CAYAC), of which all three students are members.
The group was there as volunteers for the CARA Family Detention Center Project, which works to provide pro bono legal services to Dilley detainees. Their mission in Texas was to prepare clients for their credible fear interviews and ultimately end the practice of family separation.
The cohort was originally conceived as a joint service initiative by UW School of Social Work Dean Eddie Uehara and her colleague Laura Abrams, chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare. As a result, the bilingual team of UW School of Social Work faculty Aida Wells, Jane Lee and Marian Harris, as well as students Alejandro Villa and Zea Mendoza, traveled with the UCLA volunteers to support their efforts in Dilley.
“I come from a culture in which some of the stories these families shared with us are things I grew up listening to and watching,” said Wells, who is originally from Guatemala. “Now, I have been privileged to be in this position where I am able to do something about it.”
Despite the name, the South Texas Family Residential Center is actually the country’s largest detention center for asylum-seeking women and children.
In fiscal year 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol apprehended more than 521,000 individuals along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the latest available data. Of those apprehended, nearly 93,000 claimed credible fear as their reason for crossing. In Dilley, as many as 2,600 women and children are held and processed on a given day, which can be alarming to those seeing it for the first time.
“To have mothers and children who are very small treated like inmates, to see 3-year-olds treated like inmates,” Kelly said, “it’s just very jarring.”
Many who have been to the detention center call it by a different name: The baby jail.
Training for Trauma
A week earlier, the three law students were among dozens packed into a classroom in William H. Gates Hall listening to Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky, founder of the Trauma Stewardship Institute, speaking about how to handle what was ahead.
“You’re going to have every excuse not to take care of yourself,” Van Dernoot Lipsky said, “and it’s important you have to be mindful that you do.”
The presentation was part of a training regimen for those headed to Texas focused on the mental and emotional aspects of preparing clients for interviews.
A positive credible fear interview means a family will stay in the United States and the asylum case will be taken up in court; a negative means they will most likely be deported. In order to pass, the families’ reasons for leaving must meet certain criteria. The UW team spent the week coaxing horrific stories — rape, murder, torture, kidnapping — from detainees and threading the information into stifling parameters.
“Both from a legal work perspective and an emotional perspective, it was very challenging,” Kelly said. “You know there’s so much riding on your ability to help the people who are there and to tell their stories to fit the narrow constraints of the law.”
As members of CAYAC throughout the year, the students practice dealing with trauma “in slow motion,” Kelly said. CAYAC provides students the opportunity to work with and represent a number of vulnerable populations, including youth in the child welfare system and those dealing with homelessness. Students engage in policy work, legislative advocacy, community lawyering, and gain experience with direct representation of clients in the courtroom.
Of course, this work generally takes place over a much longer period with a much smaller number of clients; in Dilley, the students dealt with concentrated doses of trauma for hours on end for five days straight.
The cumulative toll this can take on an individual can result in what’s known as “secondary trauma,” Lipsky said, which in the end may be unavoidable.
“The overwhelming thing is that this is the beginning — this is where a lot of my clients [in CAYAC] have come from,” Bay said at the time. “I know this is going to change my life in good ways and bad, so TBD on what that will look like.”
(Credible) Fear Itself
The week unfolded at a blistering pace.
Each morning, the UW team woke at 7 a.m. to catch up on administrative work left over from the day before. In addition to prepping clients for interviews, the students and faculty filled out reports, aggregated legal services for migrants being released, connected with pro bono attorneys to take the asylum cases, put together advocacy declarations and prepared individuals who had notices to appear in court.
At noon, they headed to the detention center to work with clients, about half a dozen a day. Bay said that ironically it was a slow week for two reasons: There were more volunteers than usual, and migrant caravans were being held at the border, which reduces the number of asylum-seekers who actually make it into detention centers.
Still, the work was never-ending.
“You walk into this room and you’re so laser-focused on one client,” Bay said, “and you look out the window and you see another group of women with their children coming in. It’s hard when you see so many others out there.”
At 7 p.m., they would leave the center and head either to a debriefing or another training. Those who could sleep went to bed; the others lay awake as they waited to do it again in the morning.
At the heart of a passing interview is the ability to prove not just that one has been threatened or harmed, but that he or she has been threatened or harmed because of race, religion, nationality or membership of a specific social base. Family-based discrimination, such as when a wife is threatened because a husband owes money to a gang, is enough as well; gender-based targeting is more complicated and can be difficult to prove.
With many clients, the pertinent details had to be pried out of already devastating stories.
“It’s hard to tell someone that the more gruesome their story is, the better it is for their case,” Symanski said.
“We kept having to poke and prod because it wasn’t connecting enough to what the U.S. government wants to see,” Fisher said. “You learn a lot of violent verbs you’d never learn in Spanish class.”
Fisher accompanied as many clients as she could to their interviews. As she and a Honduran woman wrapped up one interview in particular, it appeared to have gone well.
Leaving the room, Fisher congratulated the client and wished her good luck. Excited, the woman went to hug her, which was strictly prohibited, right in front of a guard. For safety reasons, volunteers were not allowed to touch detainees, give them anything or bring certain items into the center.
Fisher thrust out her arm and backed away from the woman’s advances, step after step begging her to shake her hand. Eventually the woman accepted the woefully inadequate consolation and they awkwardly departed. Fisher was crushed.
“It was so painful having to back away from her,” she said. “It really shows you how dehumanizing the treatment is there, and I was really shell-shocked.
“The good news is that her interview went well.”
The whirlwind experience came to an end on a Friday. That evening, the UW team walked away from the detention center, likely for the last time, into a bright Texas sunset.
The law students and Kelly spent their remaining hours in Texas in a state of relative normalcy, dining in San Antonio and exploring the city’s Riverwalk before heading to the airport. It would be a while before each would fully process the previous five days.
“Personally, what kept me going was the resilience of these mothers while they’re at the start of their journeys in the United States,” Bay said. “The fact they are here to help their children and themselves so they can live a safe life is inspiring. With all the frustration that I have, this experience has instilled in me that this is the work I want to do.”
The week left profound impressions on each of the CAYAC team, both emotionally and physically. Half the group contracted colds, which was no surprise given the center’s many feverish children who were given Vicks VapoRub as their only treatment. Since the detention center opened, two children have died: one after being transported to the hospital, the other shortly after being released with a parent.
The students had mixed feelings about whether to return to Dilley. Fisher said she was open to it but may have to wait a while: CARA has a waiting list of volunteers of over a year. The program is extremely successful: Detainees who do not seek assistance through CARA post about a 55 percent pass rate in their interviews; CARA clients pass 99 percent of the time.
“This experience gave the students an opportunity to know the difference lawyers can make in the lives of real people at critical moments when social justice calls for a response and civil liberties are threatened,” Kelly said. “This was a moment in time when we needed to do something.”
The first thing the students noticed when they got to their gate at the San Antonio airport was the color: mother and child in unmistakable highlighter-hued sweat suits.
Apparently, the interest was mutual.
“At our gate, I noticed them staring at me I think because of my hair,” Symanski said, laughing. Her pink streaks gave her away to a now-former Dilley resident and her young son. They were heading to Hawaii by way of Seattle.
After release, the journey is far from over for the families. In order to leave, each needs a sponsor, usually a family friend or relative. They will need to secure legal services in order to continue to fight to stay in the United States. Pro bono attorneys are essential but hard to find, despite volunteers’ best efforts. There is no guarantee this family will get to stay in the United States.
And yet for the first time all week, Bay struck up a conversation not about death, trauma, race or religion, but about what the future held for the family. The students played with her son and drew cartoons of SpongeBob SquarePants on a legal pad.
After landing in Seattle, they showed the Hawaii-bound travelers to their gate. Then, after a week of keeping one another at arm’s length, they each gave the woman a long-overdue hug. They said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.
“Meeting them showed that the work that someone had done, that all these volunteers are doing, had helped them get released,” Bay said. “It was bittersweet because it was just one family out of all those families.
“But it was one.”
These efforts were made possible by generous philanthropic support from the Purple Crayon Foundation and the Pendleton and Elisabeth Carey Miller Charitable Foundation.