It feels strange that our last day at the South Texas Family Residential Center is already upon us. All at once it feels like we’ve just arrived, yet, too, that we have been here for much longer than four days. Perhaps it’s in the twelve-hours we have spent each day inside the legal trailer talking with the women and their children and listening to their harrowing tales of persecution that all sense of time is lost. When I think about how the time this week has felt for me, I am left thinking, how is the time passing for them?
At this point in the week, my interview partner, Charles and I have completed at least 25 Credible Fear Interview preparation sessions. To be honest, I’ve lost track and the details of the interviews have begun to blend together. Each woman’s story is tragically unique, and sadly similar. For many women, their journeys to the United States began weeks and sometimes even months ago. Some had been planning and saving for the journey, hoping to have squirreled away enough resources in time to safely escape their home countries and make it to the United States and away from persecution. Others suffered horrible tragedies and threats of persecution, and were left with no option other than to flee their home countries at a moment’s notice, only to begin the arduous journey to the border. Some women and their children walked the hundreds of miles, others came by bus or car. How these days must have dragged on, filled with worry and fear whether they’d ever arrive or if the journey was going to be worth the challenges after all.
Once they arrived at the border, most went nearly immediately into ICE custody. They spent two to three days in what is known as a hielera, or icebox. The women have told me of the terrible conditions inside, and more than anything, of how cold it was. The time spent here must have been seemed an eternity, shivering through days that felt like weeks and filled with doubts of why they came.
When the women and their children arrive at the detention center, there is a bizarre sense of relief and calm that seem to have washed over most of the women. Please don’t get me wrong, in no way are these women happy to be detained. Instead, it’s more like they can finally have a moment to breathe. The fears and threats they left in their home country cannot reach them while they are in the United States; the horrors and dangers of the journey are behind them.
The newly arrived women are given an orientation and intake charla, or lesson, on the asylum process by CARA, the non-profit that we have been working with this week. Today, after observing others give the charlabetween three and five times a day, depending on the intake numbers at the detention center, it was my turn. (This gave me flashbacks to my Peace Corps days when giving charlas, complete with dibujitoswas a near daily occurrence.) The women, as they almost always are, were attentive and earnest. At the end, they are given an opportunity to ask questions. Inevitably, the questions pertain to time. ¿Cuanto tiempo estaremos aqui? How much time will we be here?
Legally speaking, families are limited in the amount of time that they may be detained. Twenty days is the maximum that children can be detained during a time of crisis within the immigration system. In case there were any doubts, our immigration system isin a state of crisis.
When I answer the women’s questions about how many days will they be in detention, how many days will pass until they get the results of their credible fear interview, how many days until they will be released, I give them an estimate and tell them to remain hopeful. In the same breath I have a hope of my own: that the days in the South Texas Family Residential Center pass as quickly for them as they have for me. Espero, pero tengo mis dudas.