Dilley Diary: Updates from South Texas Family Residential Center

Amanda Doroshow, Staff Attorney and Simone Harstead, Legal Assistant

 

Dilley Diary Day 1: Sunday, 4/8/2018

We landed yesterday and had a couple of delicious meals in San Antonio (BBQ and tacos!). We drove about an hour and a half south to Dilley today and had orientation at a ranch near the South Texas Family Residential Center (the detention center). There are six on-the-ground staff and 11 volunteers including us. The group is mostly made up of private attorneys, people who work at legal aid organizations, and women from a religious institute.

One of the biggest adjustments when arriving to Dilley is that we are not able to drink the water. The water is not potable and there are rumors that the water is contaminated with arsenic and E.coli.  Due to the construction of a new pipeline, the water has been contaminated. In addition, the outdated infrastructure of the sewage system is exacerbating the problem. Dilley had around a population of 4,000, but it can get up to double that since the addition of the detention center and all of the center and pipeline workers. The sewage system was not built to sustain this many people and has now begun to contaminate the water. On our drive down, we picked up many gallons of water for drinking and brushing teeth.

Throughout the week, our main priority is doing preparations for credible fear interviews (CFIs). The women here are seeking asylum and the first step in the long and hard fight for asylum is to pass the credible fear interview CFI with an asylum officer here, which means there are true and valid (by immigration’s standards) reasons for the women to be seeking asylum. If they get a positive decision in the CFI the goal is that they get released from detention to continue to fight their case.

 

Dilley Diary Day 2: Monday, 4/9/2018

Our group (11 volunteers total) prepared about 50 clients today for their CFIs tomorrow. Many women and children are fleeing gang violence and domestic violence in their home country. A majority of the women are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. However, there are women from other countries including Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, and Colombia.

Amanda has been to Dilley twice before, and noticed some things that have changed:

  • One of the biggest policy changes that might be difficult is we are not allowed to touch or hug the women and children with whom we’re speaking.
  • The security measures have become more intense since 2016. Upon entering the detention center, everyone must completely empty out their bags and place all items to be x-rayed, and then walk through a metal detector. Some of the on-the-ground volunteers bought see-through backpacks so they didn’t have to dump out their belongings every time they walk into the center.

 

Dilley Diary Day 3: Tuesday, 4/10/2018

We had a long day again with about 60 CFI preparations. We also had 35-45 intakes, which are initial paperwork filings with women who just arrived to the center and who will later come back for their interview preparations with us.  During an intake, we find out basic information like where they’re from and how they entered the United States. We also discuss potential things we may need to advocate for on their behalf, such as if the woman speaks an indigenous language and needs and interpreter, she/her child is ill and has not received medical help, she’s pregnant, or she was separated from family members at the border.

The thing that stood out to us today is the number of indigenous women here who speak rare Mayan languages such as Mam or K’iche’ and who are trying to navigate this complex system. Some women speak some Spanish and some speak none.   The project tries to work with these clients in special groups to make sure they get the attention they need so they understand their rights and the process. For example, today at one of our intake groups, there were all rare language speakers and we worked with each woman individually to help them fill out the forms.

Today was also Simone’s one year anniversary with Her Justice and we got Dairy Queen Blizzards to celebrate!

 

Dilley Diary Day 4: Wednesday, 4/11/2018

Amanda did something new today: a release charla (group chats) for women who have completed their CFI and will be released soon if they receive a positive. The charla goes over the process of their release and what happens afterwards. The moment Amanda said that this was a release charla everyone starting cheering and one woman even started crying.  We talked about a lot of details, (such as how the deadline for applying to asylum works, going to court, and also how to find a lawyer you can trust). We also gave each woman referrals to legal aid organizations to call in the state where they are going.

The project has a bunch of charlas that they have the volunteers do besides the release charla. They have one about before we complete intakes with the women, and there is a CFI prep-charla before their CFI preparations with us which talks about what to expect at their interview with the asylum office.

 

Dilley Diary Day 5: Thursday, 4/12/2018

Today we think we did another 50-60 CFI preparations and we couldn’t count how many intakes.

We have met with a number of clients who are sick (or their children are sick) and they face long waits to see a doctor. For example, Simone had a client who had a 10am appointment and had to wait until 4pm to see the doctor. We have heard that it is common for someone to wait as long as six hours to see the doctor. People may be more hesitant to see a doctor because they are afraid of becoming more ill while waiting in line and would rather be resting. Additionally, clients have other important appointments in the day (like charlas with us) and would have to miss them if they were waiting all day at the medic.

Simone accompanied one of the women to her CFI, where she had to stop part of the way through because she was too sick to continue. The asylum officer rescheduled her for a few days later. Although the client was relieved that she could reschedule without penalty, she was also disappointed that she wasn’t healthy enough to continue that day and as a result, would have to stay in the detention center for more time.

 

Dilley Diary Day 6: Friday, 4/13/2018

We had another long night Thursday working until 9:30pm.

From what we’ve seen there are many coughs and flus among the women and children. I’ve had a couple women who have had stomach bugs as well. Apparently there are children in medical isolation with chicken pox. One of my clients has a son with dust and bug bite allergies who had a reaction a few days ago. He needs to take medication every day, but they have only given him two days’ worth of medicine and she is worried. Amanda has noticed an increase in the quality of medical care since prior visits, but on the flip side, the wait times are extremely long so people do not always go to the doctor unless they really need to.

If mothers have to stay in medical isolation because they are sick or their children are sick, but they have their CFI, then they have to do the interview over the phone. We have helped a couple clients reschedule their interviews for later in the week so that they can do it in person.

One thing that has really stuck out to us is the role that children play in the women’s CFIs. Everyone here has at least one child with them. We have seen young children who are extremely traumatized and unable to leave their mothers. We have to explain to the children that they will need to wait outside the room when their moms are having the interviews, but sometimes they refuse. We don’t want the children in the room so the women can focus on the interview, but also so the children aren’t asked questions. If a child is at least 10 or 11 years old they may also have to be prepared to answer questions in the asylum interview. This is especially hard to prepare a child to talk about the traumatic things they witnessed. For example, Amanda had to prepare an 11-year-old boy to talk about how the local gangs threatened to kill him and his family.

If this is a woman’s first time entering the US, she can have her case linked with her children. This means that if she receives a positive assessment, so does her child/ren. We have seen how integral children can be in the interview process. This week we had a daughter who knew more about the case than her mother, and another legal assistant had to sit down with them while the daughter opened up about the threats she had kept secret from her mother. Some of the clients may also need to rely on their children if their children can read/write better than they can.

After leaving the detention center for the last time, we stopped for another Blizzard at DQ and ate it while watching a beautiful sunset. Chocolate chip cookie dough has never tasted so good.

 

Dilley Diary Day 7: Saturday, 4/14/2018

We are on our back to San Antonio to fly out! We are exhausted and very excited to brush our teeth with tap water.