Updates from the US-Mexico Border: A Week in the South Texas Family Residential Center

By Heather Cohen, CLAIHR Board Member

“Aren’t I human? Am I not the same as you?” my client asks.

She sits across the small, round table from me in the neon sweatsuit that marks her as an inmate of the South Texas Family Residential Center. Words do not seem enough, particularly when chosen in my second language. I want to reach across the table and take her hand to convey our shared humanity, but I cannot. Core Civic, the corporation that runs the jail, has decreed that we may never touch the thousands of women and children that the Dilley Pro Bono Project assists each year.

Before Dilley, I never imagined that I would need to touch a client. But before Dilley, I never had to stiff arm a client going in for a hug because she just received good news. I never watched a baby covered in rash, with a burning fever, repeatedly throw up all over his mom as she tries to complete some requisite forms. I never needed to so clearly articulate empathy.

I am taking my client’s advocacy declaration which will describe what she and her twelve-year-old daughter experienced in the hielera (ice box) when they crossed the border into the U.S. and were first detained. They were kept in their wet clothes for days. It was so cold in the three different hieleras they were moved to, that they had to huddle together for warmth. The officials they dealt with joked that they should be excited about their “NASA blankets.” My client was not amused. She learned how these officials truly felt when she was leaving one of the hieleras and was asked to pick up her trash. None of those detained were allowed to keep their belongings near them. There was nothing on the floor. Nothing that is, except my client’s daughter.

The following day, my client returns to the visitation trailer so that we can prepare her for her credible fear interview. Everyone is swamped and she waits three hours to meet with me and my partner, a social work student from UCLA. The credible fear interview stems from the expedited removal process that the U.S. has adopted. When an asylum-seeker arrives at the U.S. border, its not enough for them to seek asylum. They must first prove that their claim is credible and can pass some basic legal muster. Only then will they be released from detention on bond, although more likely by ankle monitor, and allowed to apply for asylum. Its a system that violates international law.

The Dilley Pro Bono Project, with a staff of only three lawyers, four paralegals, and four coordinators, represents every single woman and child who come through the South Texas Family Residential Center. They rely on volunteers to assist with the credible fear interviews and other related processes. The legal team oversees and offers the volunteers guidance. They also take over at the appeal stage and assist with immigration litigation around the country. They played a vital role in overturning Jeff Sessions’ pronouncements on domestic violence.

My client tells me she is fleeing gang violence in the Northern Triangle (of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). However, this is not enough to establish her claim for asylum. For a claim to succeed there must be what’s referred to as a “nexus” – that is, her fear of what would happen to her if she returned must be tied to a personal characteristic such as race, gender, or political opinion.

“She hasn’t mentioned the father of her daughter,” I tell my partner. “Let’s ask her about him.”

I have nightmares in which I repeatedly tell my clients that all that they have described suffering is not enough. That I need to hear about more for them to be let out of jail and just given a chance to live in this “land of the free.” In these nightmares, I am yelling this at them. While in waking life, we quietly ask our client about any abuse from her partner, from a re-traumatization perspective, we may as well be screaming.

Our client’s partner did abuse her. She once fled to another country in Central America. He found her and hit her so hard that she lost the baby she was carrying. His threats should she flee to the U.S. suggest that if she is deported, this time he will do much worse. My partner accompanies our client to her interview. She tells me that our client did well.

I am back in Toronto now, but no less anxious for my client’s positivo. I cannot imagine how she must feel. I can wait for her results safely at home, with my supportive partner. She awaits just the opportunity to be permitted to apply for asylum from jail. She is not fooled by the highlighter-coloured clothing. She and her twelve-year-old are in prison, awaiting a decision with results that could be even worse. I carry both her pain and her humanity with me, and I am thankful to the staff at the Dilley Pro Bono Project who will fight for her as long as she wants them to.

If you would like to hear more about the South Texas Family Residential Center and about opportunities to volunteer with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, whether in person or remotely, please reach out to Heather at heath.n.cohen@gmail.com.