As I am looking through the window, it’s snowing here in Buffalo, and I cannot but think how all the asylum-seeking women and children are doing this week. Last Sunday, I headed to Dilley, TX to help with the interpretation between the asylum-seekers and student attorneys that were helping them prepare for their interviews with asylum officers. Hard work of 12 hours a day paid off when I read the report that zero negative fear findings were issued by the Asylum Office last week. The whole team of volunteers worked very hard to prep all the women and children for their “credible fear interviews” (CFI), and I know they will continue doing this work in the future too. I want to give all my respect to the on-ground coordinators who do tremendous work for the women and children asylum seekers in Dilley South Texas Detention Center every day, and all of those volunteers who come to help on a weekly basis.
Why did I volunteer at Dilley Detention Center for women and children?
I did it because I believe in humanity, and I believe that every human being should be treated with respect, and should be given a better opportunity in life. I believe we can stop this system that treats people like caged animals by putting them in what is called “perreras” (dog pound) or “hielera” (the ice box), as border patrol is doing now, where the asylum-seekers are “tested” if they can last a few days in this ice-cold box or if they are going to give up half way through and self-deport. They all persist, and keep on going. They keep on fighting, and we keep on fighting with them.
What is the space I worked in like?
It is a big trailer with 10 smaller rooms where we prepared the asylum seekers for their credible fear interviews. However, to get in there we had to leave our phones in the car, empty our bags into plastic bins, go through a metal detector, sign in, walk over a small metal bridge into a trailer where we performed all our work. Walking into that trailer is like walking into a whole other world, where we immerse ourselves to work and fight against the inhumane acts towards those that are running away from violence in their countries into our arms, asking usfor help. Once we enter this space, our priorities change, we are there to help these people understand and prepare themselves for getting a positive with an asylum officer in order to get an opportunity to stay in our country. We helped them verbalize their traumatic story and prepare them for repeating it in front of an asylum officer.
What were my tasks as a volunteer?
Everybody is multitasking; giving charlas (an intake talk, a CFI talk, and a release talk), helping asylum-seekers fill out paperwork, prepping CFIs, answering questions, and doing anything that anyone asks them to do. With much pleasure, I picked up any task that had to be done. There is no boss; everybody volunteers, everyone multitasks. Volunteer system is broken down in steps, and even though all the volunteers are doing a gazillion things throughout the day, the work is managed and done every night by 8:00pm when we had to leave the trailer.
One Day in the Dilley Detention Center
On Tuesday, the 22 of January, I walked into the detention center at 7:30 am, and the next time I looked at the clock it was 3:00 pm, exactly. The moment I arrived, there was work to be done and things to be taken care of. I was no expert in any of them, but I can say that I became an expert in many respects today. I helped new asylum-seekers fill out their paperwork. Then I watched an “intake charla” and helped another group of asylum-seekers wither their paperwork. Then I gave an “intake charla” myself, explaining to them their asylum-seeking process, and helped more women with papelitos. As soon as I was done with that, I was asked to prepare a woman for her interview on the following day. On the previous day, I only did these with my partner student attorney, Heather. Today I prepared a woman on my own, I felt capable of doing it just by learning a lot from interpreting all day yesterday. It took a woman a while to open up and tell me her story, but after showing her that I cared about her life, and that I wanted to hear her story, she spoke to me. I submitted this CFI script to the law lab and emailed everybody about it. I was done with that and asked to help out more women with their paperwork. Then I interpreted for another student attorney, Deonna. Following that, I gave a CFI charla, and interpreted a few more CFIs for Heather. I was one of the last people to come out of the trailer that night. I felt productive and satisfied with all the time I could give to these women and children, but yet I felt as if I wanted to be there more and do more. However, I reminded myself that I would be going there again after just a few hours of sleep.
As I was preparing to go to sleep, I was reflecting on a few happy moments that I took away from this trailer-world and those are all the smiles that I received from the kids! They are absolutely adorable, innocent, and full of energy. They constantly come up to me asking questions about where they could play, and if they could watch TV, if they could color. We tried to make them happy with the few resources we had there, and they were satisfied.
What are the challenges we, the volunteers, face there?
The biggest challenges we faced are women not being able to open up to us, let alone to an asylum officer. Living through trauma, and experiencing horrifying encounters with gangs, political or other types of prosecution in their home country, then some of them were separated from their children when arrived to the USA, all that makes it hard for these women to put their traumatized past into words. All of them come to the USA to forget what they had been through and now we make them relive all the worst moments of their lives because that is what will give them the chance to apply for asylum here. What I learned, heard, and saw at Dilley Detention Center is worth sharing, so everyone becomes aware of what these brave women have to go through to reach a safe place and a little bit of peace.
How were the asylum seekers, women and children?
All the women there are almost unbelievably patient. They would wait for hours for us to take them for a prep interview, while taking care of their children who want to play, eat, and talk non-stop. They would smile at us just to show gratitude for everything we are doing for them; smiling back was the most I could give them as we were not allowed to touch them, not even during the interview when they were crying and telling us the most intimate terrible stories of their lives. I see these women as extremely brave and resilient. They have taken a long path to come here, running away from various types of violence, crossing the river, and arriving to the country where they do not even speak the language, let alone knowing its laws. And yet, they know we are there to help them.
Two specific stories that will stay in my memory and in my heart!
It was when Heather and I established a phone call between a young detained boy and his dad who had stayed back home. The boy said “Hola” to his dad and then burst into tears. This broke my heart. He then took a deep breath and asked his dad “¿Cuándo vamos a jugar juntos otra vez, papá?” “When are we going to play together again, dad?” and then again, crying uncontrollably while his dad was telling him something to calm him down, most likely promising him that that moment would soon come, even though it most likely wouldn’t.
Another moment was with another 11-year old boy, very shy and very sweet, smiling at Heather and I, while hiding behind his mom’s right arm. After encouraging him to talk to us, that we would keep his story a secret, he trusted us and told us things that he hadn’t told his mom before because he did not want to disappoint her. His head bowed low and he mumbled his traumatizing story to us, until the moment when he busted into tears. There were so many questions that we should have not asked him, because most likely he wanted to forget that chapter of his life, but yet, we had to prepare him for the possible interview that could happen with the asylum officer.
Would I go to Dilley and volunteer again?
I would go there again in a heartbeat.
A week of volunteering at Dilley Detention Center was not just challenging and rewarding but it was an eye-opener as well.