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Volunteering for a Week in Dilley, Texas

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Volunteering for a Week in Dilley, Texas

April 19, 2018 | Written by Kirsten Schlenger

At 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in mid-January I rise in the dark to start my journey to Dilley, Texas, which is southwest of Austin, north of the US-Mexico border.  I am one of three from our business immigration law firm, two lawyers and one paralegal, going to work at a privately-owned prison referred to as a “Residential Center.”  This is where 1500+ women and children, mostly refugees fleeing extreme violence in Central America, are detained.  Under the auspices of the CARA project[1] we will help by preparing the women and children for their Credible Fear Interview (CFI) with the U.S. government.  If they “pass” -- prove that they have a credible fear of returning to their home country based on a ground protected by U.S. asylum law -- they will be released from detention to their family or friends in the U.S. where they can best prepare and pursue their legal claims.

After a full travel day we arrive at our Best Western Plus in Dilley late in the afternoon with just enough time to unpack and head out to the ranch for orientation/training.  We are warmly and enthusiastically welcomed by the four full-time CARA staff, which include one attorney, an advocacy coordinator, a project manager, a volunteer coordinator, as well as two fellow volunteers for the week.

I am slightly terrified.  I have recently viewed several asylum presentations and read all the materials provided by the CARA project. I spent ten years at the start of my immigration legal career representing asylum seekers before transitioning fully to employment-based immigration.  But, that was more than ten years in the past — a lifetime ago.  Bolstered by our team, I am ready and determined that we will do our best to represent the women and children.

Early the next morning at the prison trailer we have one last orientation session.  At 8:00 a.m. the women and children arrive at the guard desk and our week officially begins. 


In the Trenches

What we do to prepare these women is heartbreaking.  We open their wounds of abuse, their shame, their fear without the luxury of approaching carefully, unable to be sensitive to the resulting emotional harm.  As the woman across from me weeps, I gently push the Kleenex box across the table, silently communicating, “I know this is hard, and hurtful, and I really wish I didn’t have to put you through this, but I have to, so I can help you.”  Sometimes I cry with them when it is just too much.

I am humbled by what I don’t know, how much help I need from anyone who has done Dilley credible fear preparation, even if only for a few weeks, even if not a lawyer.  My rusty asylum experience, not on point for these claims, feels inadequate to quickly get to the heart of a claim and convey that to the woman seeking protection.  It is hard to grasp why certain cases “work” in Dilley while others do not.  Why doesn’t the “gang girlfriend” – a very young girl co-opted by a gang member to be his property -- work? Why isn’t she protected if she says no? Why shouldn’t a young woman who does not want to be the property of criminals, used for sex and subjected to domestic violence, qualify for the protection of asylum?

I excuse myself from an interview leaving Victor, who speaks Spanish with the woman in the interview room.  Stepping out into the main room, I search for Shay, the one attorney on staff.  When I find her, I quickly summarize the fact scenario and explain my dead ends.  Shay holds herself still, tall and straight, nose tilting slightly upward, looking at something beyond me, thinking, processing.  She sifts through what I have told her and suggests some new line of questions, asking if I have probed this or that.  I return, determined to unearth more, get some nugget from what the woman has experienced and translate it into a potential claim.  On tougher cases, I go out seeking Shay a second time, knowing I am missing something.  If she can join the interview, with her demeanor inspiring trust and confidence, although she might ask many of the same questions I already posed, she quickly finds the heart of the claim, explains it to the woman.  We exhale with relief. 

In the few minutes between CFI preps, I explain aspects of the asylum law to Victor who will attend law school in the fall.  In most of our interviews, the severity of the harm required under asylum law is not the challenge.  Articulating the link between the harm suffered or feared and one of the protected grounds for asylum is the issue.  But, in one Cuban woman’s case, although the link is clearly related to expressing a political opinion, is the economic harm of not being able to secure employment severe enough? 

U.S. asylum law came about in response to and following the violence and death inflicted in World War II and the need to provide refuge protection to those suffering persecution.  Asylum is granted only if an applicant suffered or will suffer severe harm on account of just five grounds:  race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.  To establish asylum eligibility frequently involves fitting a square peg into a round hole — such as threading the needle of what the confusing body of law deems to be qualifying membership in a particular social group.

The harm these Central American women have experienced such as domestic cruelty and violence, or vicious threats of death delivered by gang members, do not fit neatly into the five asylum grounds geared more to men and their interactions outside the home.  It requires legal expertise to frame what these women have endured and suffered into a qualifying claim.  A woman fleeing beatings with a pipe, brutal rape, being locked in her home, pursued and threatened by her partner when she tries to leave so that she can escape death, does not understand how to marshal her story, what aspects of the torture she suffered may meet the asylum requirements under the law, and what aspects of what she fears most may not be legally relevant. 

As I try to log into the innovation law lab after an emotionally wrenching interview preparation, I fumble with the password, overcome and distracted by the sheer evil of the violence suffered by the last woman I prepared.  My brain and heart are shooting in all directions, unable to focus on the simplest rote action for more than 10 seconds.

If we had more people, more attorneys, more interpreters and more time for each family — even just 4-6 hours rather than the 1-2 we have, we could excavate the claim, help the women understand which parts of their stories to focus on, reduce those facts to a written Declaration, provide it to our client and substantially increase the chance of success in presenting their claim to the asylum officer. Shouldn’t at least that process be due?


The Prison

We are working each day in a prison where the women and children seeking asylum are not free to leave or even walk from one trailer to each other without a guard.  There are many rules to constrain us and our clients and we are there only because the for-profit owner allows us to be.

Each morning we four volunteers gather in the breakfast room/lobby of the Best Western Plus — our three WSM attorneys/paralegal and Fede who walks over from his hotel next door.  On sunless mornings we drive the 5-10 minute distance to the unmarked “Residential Center,” which sits just beyond the bleak Men’s Prison.  We park, traverse the dirt road of the parking lot and ascend the steps up to the “reception” trailer prison entrance. 

Get two bins, dodge the army of khaki pants and maroon golf shirt-clad guards sporting clear plastic backpacks, empty everything from our bags into one bin — don’t forget the watch, the belt, the Kleenex in one pocket of the bag or you will be reprimanded -- remove the computer from its bag, put the bin through the security machine, walk through the machine arch, stand to be wanded front and back, take your bins to the side, return all your possessions to their rightful places, present your driver’s license and Bar Card in exchange for Badge—Visitor #6, clip on the badge, return the empty bins to the table on the far side of the barrier, exit through the door to an outside bridge and open the door to enter the working trailer. 

At lunch time head out to Bobby’s Tacos truck for a break.  Upon return, ascend the steps, repeat -- get two bins . . .


The Children

The main room of the trailer is flanked by small offices with one desk or table, 3-4 plastic chairs and if you are lucky, a telephone.  In the far-right corner of the trailer is a small playroom for the children, from which music floats, sometimes soft, occasionally more rousing. 

The four CARA staff members, we six volunteers and on a few days, one to two additional local volunteers circulate among the 5-7 maroon and khaki guards.  It can feel like a three-ring circus with little boys zooming through the main room, chortling, chasing, burning off energy.  A small girl clings to her mama, refusing to leave her side.  A guard brings one little boy to our room.  He is crying after being hit by another child.  His mother assures me he will quickly settle down.  In five minutes he is fast asleep.

One very small and young nine-year-old boy with big brown eyes bravely testifies about the gang member who gave him a gun and directed him to kill someone.  After the gang threatened to kill his mother if he did not do their bidding, he and his mother fled.  As horrible as this was for this child and his mother, this was not the qualifying claim.  Instead, it was the beatings, rape, home imprisonment and death threats to his mother by her domestic partner, father and employer over her lifetime that was the qualifying claim.

A mama enters with her adolescent girl — so young, so lovely that a 40-year-old man sought to pluck her from her childhood, to own her, use her, beat her, discard and leave her, but never let her leave.

Friday afternoon, the normal wailing of one child becomes a chorus rising in a great crescendo, heard from our small office.  We are speaking with a woman who fled unspeakable yet in our small room spoken horror.  Hers is one account in a society apparently designed to harm or kill her and her children.  The children’s cries give voice to this tragedy.  


The Pink Binder

Before the interview prep, the women, wearing brightly colored prison issued sweatshirts and sweat pants, sparkly wool caps on cold days, and clutching their manila envelopes containing important immigration documents, gather in a circle for a “Charla.”  This is a chat which is led by a volunteer who provides an overview of the credible fear interview and preparation process.  The women and their children listen quietly, taking it in, occasionally asking questions.

Following the Charla, the Pink Binder, a notebook in a deceptively colored pastel pink usually seen in a nursery, steps into the spotlight as command central for the credible fear interviews at Dilley. The Pink Binder, which lies on a table in the main room of the trailer, contains lists of names and immigration identifying A numbers for the women who await their one-on-one prep for each time slot:  8:00 a.m. 10:00 a.m. 1:00 p.m. 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm.  The volunteers and staff approach the current page in the to select the next woman, putting their name next to the woman’s name so that the project manager ensures that everyone is seen. 

In the first day or two, new to the process we arbitrarily select a name and intrepidly head into the interview room.  We quickly learn that domestic violence cases are generally easier to get to a claim clearly and quickly.  We tease out the account of a woman beaten by her partner with a pipe and slammed by him so hard she could not breath, lost consciousness and thought she would die.  He did this in front of her four-year-old son.  He threatened to kill her son if she tried to leave him.  Or, we learn about the woman who fled her home because her father beat her repeatedly and told her how worthless she was, only to then be in a relationship with a partner who not only beat her, but also intentionally burned the leg of her five-year-old son. 

Gang cases, whether extortion, or threats, are harder, take longer and might require a whole new line of questions after hitting a dead end.  Women who have been in the United States before this recent attempted border crossing and already have a deportation order and earlier A# face a much tougher standard of proof for their claims and are far more challenging to prepare.  The harder the case, the more likely you are to have to call the woman back for another prep session in the afternoon or the next morning before the credible fear interview.

As the week proceeds and the end of each day approaches, we volunteers droop, no longer intrepid, but tired and worn down with the 12+ hour stressful days.  Amazingly, Victor, despite having a cold/flu, has soldiered through the week, showing up each day, translating until his voice is a mere rasp. No one ever turns down work or doesn’t pull their weight.   But, approaching the pink binder, at times we try to select a woman who might, just might, have a clearer claim than another, making our work slightly easier. 


The Smiles

In a week of delving into the deepest, darkest places of shame, horror and fear, a smile from a woman being prepared for her credible fear interview is a rare, elusive thing, like the flash of a small hare fleeing.  But, when it comes, and lights up a face, it is lovely.  One indigenous woman has an impish sense of humor with the most beautiful white toothed smile.  Another, after telling her horrific account of abuse, upon exiting our small interview room smiles broadly when I tell her she is brave.  She replies proudly that the counsellor told her she is smart.  I cry.  When I pass through the common room and see the woman I accompanied to her asylum interview, I smile as warmly as I can without speaking the Spanish I lack.  She returns my smile.  Even amid all this sorrow, humanity shines through in a smile.


The Credible Fear Asylum Interview

Close to noon one day, I exit the interview prep room, eagerly anticipating our lunch outing to Bobby’s Tacos.  Shay approaches me to see if I will attend an asylum interview with one of the women.  Generally, the women go on their own as there are not enough lawyers to represent them at every interview.   I reply, “Sure, when?” thinking I will have a chance to sit down and speak with the woman before the interview. “Now.  The interview started and then she requested an attorney so the asylum officer came to us.” “OK.”  Shay then gives me a very quick summary of the woman’s claim which I vaguely recognize.  I smile at my new “client” and am walked with her by a guard over to the asylum office trailer.

I am normally the most over prepared attorney in the room.  Not this time.  I walk into the interview office trying to look confident, lawyerly, a comforting presence for my client.  I say very little because the officer is very good at eliciting the testimony and the claim, the telephonic interpreter is surprisingly excellent, and the officer also understands Spanish and works effectively with the interpreter and the client.  I take detailed notes, am vigilant in case any significant misunderstanding or confusion arises — it does not.  The client speaks clearly about what she and her young son have suffered at the hands of her partner, her employer and the gang.  She relates the abuse by an US government officer at the border who taunted her, accusing her of coming to the US to be a prostitute.  I am ashamed of my government.  When she cries, I push the Kleenex box over to her.  I hope that my presence has made her more comfortable telling the officer what she suffered and why she is afraid to return.  Although I feel more like a potted plant than an advocate, not daring to attempt minor clarifications for fear the resulting testimony might make things worse rather than better, this asylum seeker, with the preparation by another volunteer, successfully explained her fear and why she could not return. Following the interview, the humorless guard escorts me back to the prep trailer.  I quip that I have missed my Bobby’s Tacos lunch window.  The guard smiles -- very slightly. 


Honoring the Women

How do you have the courage to leave your family, your home, with two or three small children, making the dangerous journey through Mexico to the US border?  In Dilley, with the incredible but small staff and volunteers this week, we move the women and children through as quickly as we can-tick tock tick tock.  We know that they almost all face serious threats of death — inside and outside their homes.   

I am determined to remember the women, their niños and niñas, deeply affected by their bravery.  Just as following the 9/11 tragedy, I read the profile of everyone who died to learn who they were, to acknowledge them as individuals who were loved and valued while alive, I seal the women’s faces in my memory, pay tribute to their humanity, remember and worry for them, helpless to save them.  We make a small dent in the huge obstacles they will face by improving their chance of being released to pursue their claim for asylum free from prison, with the support of their family or community.


The End of the Week

It is Friday night, close to 8:00 p.m. at the jail and I am relieved that I have made it through one of the most challenging weeks in my life. Well almost.  I feel small back spasms and have a rash. A slight sore throat threatens to bloom into a cold or worse.  My body is telling me something — screaming or crying from the inside out. 

We entered Dilley last Sunday with a huge black cloud of smoke near the HEB mega-store where we purchased our week’s water supply.  As we drive out of the “Residential Center” after hugging the CARA staff and our co-volunteer, the sky glows ominously red bringing the men’s prison into focus on the flat road back to our hotel.  It feels like the apocalypse.  The “home” of our Central American clients glows like the Evil Empire locking up women and children seeking protection from violence.  

On our day of departure, no one objects to leaving 3+ hours before our plane flight.  Any place, even an airport, is “Better than Dilley”.  It is another drizzly, grey day. We pass a hunting shop. What are they hunting — the local wild birds the CARA project manager, Nate, had called out for their beauty on the  night we arrived for orientation?  

My mind is sorting through the accounts of unimaginable and pervasive violence. “I am not anyone’s property” captures what I hope is their future.  I am angry at the societies built on machismo, whether with deadly effect in Central America, or the daily microaggressions reflected in the “Residential Center” rules which limit entrants to one lipstick and no dress above the knees.  Why do we have a global normalizing of control and abuse of women from Hollywood to Central America to Dilley?  We need a master plan to end machismo/misogynist governments.  But now, we can and must get representation for the Dilley women and children. Who will help?[2]


[1] CARA (CLINIC, AILA, RAICES and the American Immigration Council) Family Detention Pro Bono Project is a volunteer-built and volunteer-managed operation committed to ensuring that detained children and their mothers receive pro bono representation.  The CARA project is committed to developing aggressive, effective advocacy and litigation strategies to end the practice of family detention.  For information go to:

[2] If you want to volunteer or donate to make a volunteer’s week possible, go to this website:

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