The Cognitive Dissonance of Family Detention by Sarah G.

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A woman is lulling her year-old son to sleep against her chest and making faces to entertain her squirming three-year-old daughter who is getting antsy. It would be a perfect snapshot of the beautiful, thickly-layered, intuitive multitasking of motherhood, but there is a low hum of anxiety underpinning the family moment. They are scared.

If I were to close my eyes and focus on the smells and sounds of the Dilley Pro Bono Legal Assistance Trailer, I would think it were a daycare. But the rules of the facility make it feel much more like a prison. We are not allowed to touch the women or their children except to shake their hands. We are not allowed to offer them any food or drink. We must vacate the facility unless we have scheduled legal work. We are not allowed to give them crayons or coloring books. Security screening forbids us to bring in any phones, smartwatches, any amount of money exceeding $20, or hand sanitizer. We dumped our bags into plastic bins to be x-ray scanned, walked through metal detectors, and then were “wanded” down before being cleared to walk into the facility. 

The cognitive dissonance between feeling the oppressive confinement in a detention center and being surrounded by mothers breastfeeding their small children would have been jarring alone, but we were also running on very little sleep. After the nor’easter in New York delayed our travel plans, we only arrived at our hotel in Dilley on Sunday night at 2am. We needed to be awake early to be at a training at 7:30 am training which left most of us only 3 or 4 hours to get some rest.

The day came and went like a fever dream. There was constant activity in the legal trailer, and always more work to be taken on when one task was completed. The women sometimes had to wait for several hours before anyone could meet with them, and we worked with the clients right up until 8 pm, when we were no longer allowed to stay. 

Most of the work we were doing was preparation for the women’s asylum interview, in which they are assessed for their eligibility to pursue a full asylum claim. To show this eligibility, they have to convince a U.S. Asylum Officer that there is even a 10% chance they will face persecution if they are returned to their country of origin. There are several legal requirements that must be met in order to pass this interview, so we met with clients to give them information about the legal process and its requirements, and to help them tell their story. 

As student attorneys, these concepts are incredibly difficult to navigate. If we are struggling, it would be impossible for a non-English-speaking or foreign-born person to even begin to understand the legal requirements for asylum. From what we saw today, even a woman whose story of trauma and persecution perfectly fit the legal requirements would likely be denied her eligibility to pursue asylum in court without legal guidance. The interview is simply the first step in a complicated legal immigration process, but without any assistance, almost all of these women would be weeded out, even at this preliminary step. The prep work we are doing with these people is intended to allow these asylum seeking women their day in court. 

When a woman feels forced to leave everything she’s ever known to flee to another country—when she gives up the adult comforts of “home” and “family” and “neighbors” and “language” and “culture” and “mine”—it’s because there was no other option for her. One woman told me a story today about horrific things she went through that she confided she had never told anyone else in her life, not even her family. I hope the work we do here earns that trust by honoring these women and the dignity –the humanity—in their sacrifices. 

Due to the unforeseen weather delays, we are in hoping to raise a little extra money to cover the cost of the many flights (4!) that were cancelled and rebooked. If you are interested in donating to the trip, please visit our Crowdfunding page.