Each year, law student volunteers from the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP)’s chapter at Yale Law School travel to the nation’s largest immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas. Kayla Morin is one of 12 students who spent her spring break helping detained families pursue asylum in the United States.
Guest Post by Kayla Morin
Dilley Day 0: Orientation
We arrived in Dilley, Texas, a small town of 3,674 people about an hour away from San Antonio. I was first struck by how desolate an area this was. Everywhere I looked there was either a deserted building, a store that had gone out of business, or flat, empty space.
As evening approached we made our way to the “Ranch” for orientation with the Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP). We passed by a men’s prison on the way. Incarceration, it appears, drives this town economically.
During orientation, we talked about the tension between advocating for a particular client and fighting against the system in general, which reminded me of our discussions in the ASAP seminar at Yale. In this political moment, the DPBP staff has opted to focus on advocating for individuals, just as we are in the ASAP seminar. Strategically, I think this is the right choice.
Dilley Day 1:
We arrived at the detention center at 7:30 a.m. I had never been inside a prison facility before, so the whole experience felt a bit surreal. I paired up with a Yale student to tackle our first preliminary asylum interview preparation session. As we worked with this client, we were able to help her organize what was at first a series of horrific events into a legally articulable claim. I had the incredible opportunity to accompany the client to a preliminary asylum interview, which is the first step in winning asylum in the United States.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the officer was kind and generous. The interview went well. It was heartening to see the client respond to questions in the way we had practiced, while staying truthful to her experiences. I felt like our preparation had made a difference in how she articulated her claim. She strongly presented her claim, and explained when and why she fled her home country. The asylum officer allowed me to directly question the client at the end of the interview, which I felt strengthened some points in her case. I also was able to give a closing statement. At the end of the interview, the asylum officer let her know that she would likely receive a positive decision.
I did two more interview preparation sessions. I was struck by how strong these women are, and how they will do absolutely anything for their children. One of the women started crying as we spoke to her about her claim. I hated feeling like I was hurting her, but I also desperately wanted her to get a positive decision with the asylum office. I left the day feeling a tension between advocacy and compassion.
Dilley Day 3:
By day three, I had a better grasp of the process and began to prep clients more quickly. On this day, one moment in particular stood out. It was mid-afternoon, and I was helping clients fill out their intake forms. A woman raised her hand for help, and I walked over to ask her what she needed. She told me that she couldn’t write, so I sat down and slowly had her spell out her name, the name of her child, and the name of her husband. When I asked for her date of birth, she told me 1998. I have a younger sister Sophie who was also born in 1998. I couldn’t help but compare the two. This woman and my sister are the same age, but the woman cannot read or write, has a four-year-old son, and is imprisoned in the United States. No one—let alone a nineteen-year-old—should have to go through what she’s been through. I can’t bear the thought of my sister having to go through the same thing. We come from a place of such privilege, just by virtue of the fact that we can read and write. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this.
I also heard some absolutely horrific things today: repeated rapes that continued for decades; death threats; knife attacks; extreme poverty; the heartbreak of leaving a child behind; hunger; fear; and too much more to recount. At some point the stories start blending together. One woman spoke of going to church, and then returning home to have her husband hit her with a Bible. He did so after reading the verse that wives should submit to their husbands.
None of these women left their homes, their livelihoods, and their families behind without a reason to go. They didn’t risk the lives of their children and themselves without an explanation. Each of them left out of necessity. And now that they’re in the United States, they are again faced with a system that’s unjust and wrong. My heart breaks to hear about the hardship these women have faced, and the different type of hardship they’ll face throughout their legal battle and transition to the United States.
These women are the focus of our spring break trip in Dilley. However, I’ve also considered how this trip affects me personally. I’m a Christian, and have been one all my life. At this point, I’m not sure if the trip has strengthened or weakened my belief in God. There is so much inexplicable cruelty, injustice, and suffering in the world. The fact that my sister can read, that she doesn’t have a four-year-old child, and that she comes from a loving, stable family is pure luck. The fact that we were born in the United States is pure luck. How could God allow such random suffering and injustice in the world? I don’t know.
But then I see these women, their resilience, strength, and fierce love for their children. I see them struggle through interviews with tears in their eyes. I offer them a break during the interviews, but they almost never need one. They are determined to tell their stories and create a better life for their children. They always greet me with a smile, and when I ask how they’re doing, always answer bien. Some of them add, “Gracias a Dios.” And I know that if these women still believe in God after everything they’ve been through, that I can, too.
Dilley Day 4:
Today I almost cried in a meeting with a client. After all of the horrific things I’ve heard this week, I felt especially disheartened while hearing a woman describe how U.S. officials had treated her at the border. This woman told me that at an interview with an ICE official, a man told her that she didn’t belong here and that she was making it worse for people who already lived in the United States. He called her derogatory names. When her daughter was brought up, he said that the daughter was not a blessing from God.
For some reason, I reacted to this more emotionally than I had when hearing other unthinkable things these women had suffered. I think this statement affected me in that way because even after everything these women have been through, they will still face discrimination in the United States. I want their suffering to end once they cross the border. In reality, I know that can’t be true.
I often felt like I was perpetuating these women’s suffering as well. I hated having to ask them sensitive, probing questions, and hated forcing them to recount the most traumatic episodes in their lives. On one occasion, though, I was able to set up a call with a woman’s relative who lived in the United States. She lit up when her relative answered the phone. For once, I finally felt like I was helping in a direct and tangible way. I also felt helpful when I helped the women fill out forms. The women were so concerned that any error on their forms would negatively impact their case. One woman’s black pen ran out, and she switched to another with blue ink. She worried that the change in color would somehow mess up her application for asylum. I assured her that it wouldn’t, but I felt awful that these women live with fear, worry, and confusion as they try to navigate the incomprehensible asylum system.
Dilley Day 5:
I started the day by helping to prep a client with a tough case. My partner and I eventually found a category into which her asylum claim fit, and in so doing, I realized that I really liked legal work. I enjoyed thinking creatively and problem solving to organize a set of facts to satisfy a legal standard. I liked wearing the “detective” hat, and liked the sense of accomplishment of having figured out the best way to frame a client’s story.
After lunch, I helped give release presentations to the women. A classmate and I were escorted over to another building to give the talk. Other than DPBP’s office, I had been to two other buildings inside the facility: the asylum office and this building for the release presentation. Each time I moved around the facility, a guard would escort me to another building. I did not feel free. Though they call the facility a “family residential center,” it’s a prison. One of the DPBP staff called it a “baby jail”—even harmless infants are detained.
I was escorted into a non-descript room with pews lined up in rows. The room felt eerily like a church, but when I asked a woman if this was the iglesia, she said no. That afternoon, I gave three release presentations, during which I described the next steps these women would take to apply for asylum. I explained the grillete, or ankle monitor, to them, and described how bail worked. I told them they had to go to appointments with ICE and with the court, and to notify both if they changed their address. I encouraged them to find an attorney as soon as possible.
At one point in the talk, I handed out a list of legal resources to the women based on the city or state they were headed next. I was surprised by the variety of places where these women had relatives—Utah, Wisconsin, Ohio, Idaho, and Washington, for example, were all mentioned. I was encouraged that the women had somewhere to go and someone to live with, but hoped that they weren’t headed to reunite with a family member who had abused them in the past.
Though the release presentation is one of the happier times at the jail, I still left with a feeling of dread in my stomach for these women. I presented a vast amount of information in a short amount of time, sometimes yelling over babies’ wails. I handed out a packet of information to them, but some can’t read. Even for those who can, the system is still enormously convoluted. I tried to emphasize that they call the 800 number once a week to check on their court dates, but I know from experience that many of them will miss court dates. Others may miss the one-year filing deadline.
On top of navigating the legal system, the women will have to find a place to live, obtain a work permit, put their kids in school, provide for their children, and likely deal with physical, mental, or emotional trauma for the rest of their lives. Their bravery and strength amaze me, but I know that adjusting to the United States won’t be easy.
As I gave the release presentations, I was reminded of our work with our ASAP client. She has been in the legal system for years. She’s had to retell her story over and over again to government officials and lawyers and law students. At the same time, she cares for her two young children and works what I’ve gathered is a full-time job. The clients released from Dilley likewise have a long road ahead of them.
I’m scared for them. But I also know that if they made the arduous journey up to the United States that they are tough as nails. Through force of will they came here to make a better life for themselves and their children. They maintain, at least outwardly, a positive demeanor and unwavering faith in God. They smiled, laughed at my poor jokes, and always thanked us for our help. They treated their children with love and affection.
One of the law students on the trip told us that she tried to end every interview by empowering the women. She would say, “You are a woman. Because of this you are strong and brave. You are an amazing mother to your children, and you will build a better life here.” Some of these women have probably never heard these words of encouragement. But they couldn’t be more true.