Border Rights and Volunteer Advocacy: What you need to know
Note: This blog post is a radical departure from my typical posts about website strategy, tips & tricks. As The Website Doula, I’ve always maintained a close relationship with my client base. We talk about your websites, yes, but we also talk about life, family, what’s important to you. This topic is very, very important to me. It was not an easy post to write, and I feel somewhat vulnerable sharing it here, but I believe this is important – and I have a responsibility to raise awareness the best I can. So… here we go!
As many of you know, I recently spent 4 days volunteering as a Spanish translator for a pro bono asylum lawyer project at a detention center in Dilley, TX. I went together with my 18 year old son Galen, who is also fluent in Spanish. This was, in many ways, a return for me – and somewhat of a rebirth. The first births I attended back in 1992 were those of Salvadoran families in Washington DC, who had fled violence and persecution in their country. I began as a translator – the word “doula” was not yet in common practice – but with each woman I served I learned the ways of birth that I carry with me to this day. I continued that work training as a midwife on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, and fell in love with the rich culture of the border.
When our family moved to Canada in 2003, my life & work took me in new directions. Our move to Costa Rica in 2013 was an opportunity to deepen my Spanish skills, and with the 2016 election and the growing injustices at the border, I began to wonder what my best role could be. Somehow, at the same time as so many were bemoaning U.S. politics and wishing they could move to Costa Rica or Canada, our family felt an unexpected call to return to the U.S. and play a part in working towards change.
We landed in Saint Paul, Minnesota a year and a half ago. I have struggled, since arriving, to find the right place to invest my energy & skillset, and continually felt drawn to what is happening on the US-Mexico border, but unclear on how, where & what… Well, friends, I’ve found it. It feels like a full circle in some ways. I don’t know what this will look like exactly, but I have already committed to return, joining a local team of lawyers with Project Starfish Minnesota as a translator at the same centre in late February, and another local lawyer team in April. I’m also brushing up on my Portuguese & learning a bit of Haitain Creole in preparation.
This is what I can do, how I can be most useful. It is a powerful way to feel my language skills together with my years of birth work and knowing how to hold the space for heartbreaking stories. I know that the work I am doing is a teeny tiny drop in the bucket. I know that we are up against an incredibly unjust system, and the only way I know how to deal with my anger and frustration is to sit with a woman and hear her story. And then another, and another.
So I promised y’all that I would compile my experience in a single blog post so that you could share it with friends and family. I don’t really know how to do that. I could talk about living conditions, unjust laws, existing laws that aren’t being respected, the factors in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere that have caused these families to walk thousands of miles seeking safety. I could talk about the work of thousands of volunteers who work with asylum seekers on both sides of the U.S. – Mexico border, including 1400 / year in the project where I served. I could talk about how daunted I feel when I look at the numbers, and how small the difference I can make really is. But it’s not small – not really. Not to the families who successfully navigate the asylum system that is stacked against them, thanks in small part to the time I and other volunteers have spent with them. At the very least, we tell ourselves, they have been heard, and had the chance to feel supported and welcomed by at least one citizen of this country.
I’d like to begin by sharing a poem by my son about his experience there. It is hard to convey just how profoundly meaningful it was to do this work together with him. At age 18, and a senior in high school, he is compassionate and engaged, and he stepped into an extraordinarily difficult environment with both grace and determination.
PAIN AND SUFFERING
by Galen Juliusson
Pain, unimaginable to the innocent mind,
Wracks their bodies at night.
To their suffering, the world is blind.
All of their requests declined,
The guards spit on their humanity with ill disguised spite.
Pain, unimaginable to the innocent mind.
The government tries to keep their voices confined,
As they keep the centers far out of sight.
To their suffering, the world is blind.
Screaming and crying, mothers and children are reassigned
To separate detention centers bathed in harsh light.
Pain, unimaginable to the innocent mind.
Far from the cities, they are trapped behind
Bars of ill disguised jails as they cower in fright.
To their suffering, the world is blind.
Behind their tv screens, the world watches the tragedy unwind,
They watch, sympathizing but not acting on, this violation of rights.
Pain, unimaginable to the innocent mind,
To their suffering, the world is blind.
What follows is just a taste written from my experience & research, or at least the parts I feel able to write about tonight. I hope to give you a sense of what’s happening right now on the border, a sense of human connection to their stories, and hopefully a few ideas of how you too can get involved.
What is Asylum?
Asylum is a form of legal protection that became international law after WWII. With the Refugee Act of 1980, the U.S. Congress adopted the international definition of a refugee and the Geneva Convention, meaning it is legally bound to follow international asylum law. Under these provisions, individuals who can demonstrate that they are unable or unwilling to return to their country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of: race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or membership in a particular social group may be granted asylum.
In order to request asylum, one must be already in the U.S. or at a port of entry (in this case, the U.S.-Mexico land border) to file an asylum claim. This is meant to be a legal, protected right of all those fleeing persecution.
I read a fascinating article on the translation crisis at the border for indigenous asylum seekers, and came across this extraordinary translation of the legal term asylum into Mam, an indigenous language from Guatemala:
Somehow this breaks it down for me into the most basic of ways, beyond all the legalities & policies, helping me to imagine, just for a moment, that it is my children or partner that are in danger. A simple piece of paper that is achingly hard to obtain, that could very well mean the difference between life and death.
What’s really happening at the border?
The Trump administration would have you believe we are facing a border crisis. While border apprehensions have increased, we are still in fact seeing record lows for overall border apprehensions in the past 50 years. What is up, however, is the % of those people who are claiming asylum.
Unfortunately, international law is not being followed. Border officials are routinely turning people away at the border, informing them they must return another time, or stay in Mexico for months before their number is called. At one official border crossing, for example, just 15 asylum seekers are being accepted each day. They are stranded in dangerous border towns, waiting an average of 3 months before they are allowed to apply. (read more)
Some may ask, why not just “wait their turn” in Mexico?
Federal law and international treaty obligations state that the U.S. cannot force someone to go to a country where they will be at risk of persecution or torture. And yet the “Remain in Mexico” policy does just that, with devastating impact. Mexico, like some Central American countries, is also in crisis, with record-breaking numbers of homicides each year since 2017. As well, migrants are being targeted in the border region, as they are a profoundly vulnerable population. I heard stories of women having been held hostage by gang members in Mexico until they could pay for their release to continue their journey north, and sexual assault, robbery, and bribes are common experiences (read more). This American Life has a phenomenal podcast episode (#688) about the Remain in Mexico policy – have a listen (it’s a difficult one to hear).
It is no wonder so many are instead attempting a dangerous river crossing, seeking border officials once they are “safe” on U.S. soil.
What is a detention center?
It can be confusing watching the news to know what is being experienced by migrants. Harsh images and headlines flash across our screens speaking of cages, parent-child separation, feezing cold cells, and mylar “blankets”. In reality, those who are claiming asylum will generally go through several centres. Here is the typical sequence followed by most of the women and children I worked with:
There are the stories of the “hieleras”, or “ice boxes” – freezing cold processing centers with holding rooms. These are the places where you hear the stories about foil blankets and concrete floors and benches. For days people, including young children, are subjected to 24 hour lit rooms, kept awake all night by guards who won’t let them sleep with freezing cold temperatures, and often denied bathroom access, showers, soap, and toothpaste. You can read more about the hieleras here.
PERRERAS: DOG KENNELS
Often after the hielera, families are sent to the “pererra”, translated as “dog cage”, another processing center. These are the photos you’ve seen in the news of migrants in large warehouse facilities in cages, generally separated by gender. One woman described to me her agonizing time there seeing her 10 year old son several cages away, surrounded by adult men, screaming and crying for her. Most of the families I worked with had spent time in both an hielera and a perrera before being moved to the South Texas Residential Center, where I met them.
SOUTH TEXAS RESIDENTIAL CENTER
Needless to say, this is not the only detention center. When I look at the map below I am thoroughly overwhelmed. There are communities all over the country that are host to centers such as this. Here’s a map of centers around the country. If you click on the map you can track where people are being held in your region. Also fascinating is the time bar at the top where you can see the growth in centers, the average # of people in detention, and the total cost.
Credit: Freedom for Immigrants
If you happened to pass through Dilley, Texas (about an hour south of San Antonio) you would have no clue that this center even exists. Driving down the road you’ll notice the men’s prison, and then soon after a massive assembly of stadium lights burning bright, facing down on a large compound of non-descript brown buildings, matching the red clay earth of Dilley. This center is the largest one in the country for women and children, with a capacity of 2400. To enter the center we were required to submit our documentation a full month before for clearance, and then pass through metal detectors and have our bags searched. No nail clippers, no hand sanitizer, no glass bottles, no aluminum, no crayons…
In comparison to everything they have experienced thus far, these centers are a welcome respite, and many women expressed their gratitude for being well fed, and safe. There is a school for the children, a playground, a gym, and cafeteria. They are placed in shared living quarters with 6 bunk beds each. Bathrooms are in a trailer at one end of the centre.
Despite these comforts, it is not an easy place to be, and is very much a jail. While at first families may experience relief compared to the hieleras and pereras, they soon realize they are facing a different set of problems. Their stay at the center will be longer, at least several weeks, and many children struggle with their physical and mental health while in custody. While there is a clinic, needs for medical treatment are often dismissed as being rooted in “anxiety”, and routine issues can become emergencies requiring transport by ambulance due to lack of proper treatment. Along with the stadium lights, guards enter their rooms every 30 minutes throughout the night with flashlights to ensure they are all there. Women reported that if they make a phone call (monitored by guards) and complain about living conditions or treatment, phone privileges may be removed. Children have limited access to some coloring pages and crayons, but we as volunteers were not allowed to bring in any toys, books or crayons for them. As well, volunteers are not allowed to physically comfort the women and children in any way beyond a handshake.
Our days were spent almost exclusively in the visitation trailer, just 10 feet from the entrance. Fluorescent lights shine in a large room that generally holds 20-30 women and children at any given time. Surrounding the room are 10+ consultation rooms where lawyers & volunteers meet with clients. Guards sit at desks at each entrance, monitoring who enters & leaves the building. The room is either stuffy or freezing, depending on whether or not they have the air on. Their personal belongings taken by ICE, women and children are dressed in government-issued clothing – basic pants, tshirts and sweatshirts (no bras) in plain crayola bright colors of purple, green, blue, and red, and the occasional neon yellow.
Curious to learn more about ICE facilities? Click here.
MY ROLE AS A VOLUNTEER
I want to start by saying clearly that I am NOT an expert on this. But I can give you some insight on elements of current immigration policy and practice that may seem reasonable to the outside observer, but have devastating consequences for this vulnerable population. The legal system has been redesigned with policy upon policy to stack the legal system heavily against them.
At this particular time the center is filled with women and children from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, and Haiti, with a smattering of other countries. Our role as volunteers is to serve as advocates for those who wish to have legal representation as they seek asylum. While our team was able to meet the needs of Spanish speakers, those from Brazil, Haiti and elsewhere generally needed to use phone translation services.
I joined the Dilley Pro Bono Project as a volunteer translator, together with my 18 year old son Galen. Our group included a blend of lawyers, social workers, and translators – some with extensive border experience, others new to this work. In preparation for our time there we began a list of likely Spanish terminology to share with other volunteers, since terms such as “kidnapping” and “stabbing” don’t tend to be taught in Spanish classes. Over the week that list grew to include derogatory slang terms for LGBTQ+ individuals, words we hadn’t anticipated such as mouth gag (mordaza), and names for the many gangs in the region. (Are you headed to Dilley or another project as a volunteer? Contact me at email@example.com to request a copy).
HOW THE ASYLUM PROCESS WORKS
Clients begin with a group presentation in their language on the asylum process and the requirements to provide that they have a “credible fear” of returning to their country. They then meet individually with a volunteer (supported by the staff lawyers) to share their story. Our role is to help them understand the ways in which they can connect their story with asylum law, seeking in particular ways to tie their experience to persecution in relation to their nationality, race, religion, political beliefs, or membership in a particular social group.
Let me be clear, virtually every woman I spoke with had a credible fear of returning.
However, heart wrenching stories with unimaginable violence simply cannot qualify these days without matching very specific criteria, and even then… The recent addition of the third country rule to U.S. immigration law means that all those from countries south of Mexico must have applied – and been rejected – for asylum before arriving in the U.S. to request asylum. That means we are requiring them to seek asylum in other countries that are a) equally unsafe, and b) where the gangs so many of them are fleeing have extended power & networks (yes, they are using facebook for this purpose) to track them down. As a result, those who are from outside of Mexico must meet a much higher level of credible fear and seek asylum under a different set of criteria.
Of course, all credible fear interviews are subjective, and not every woman has the confidence, trust in the system or emotional stability to be able to share her story openly with strangers. To make matters worse, increasingly the U.S. is having Customs and Border Patrol agents manage these Credible Fear Interviews instead of trained asylum officers, sometimes even with several men meeting with a single client. Can you imagine sharing your story of rape and torture in front of 3 male strangers who are not trained in creating a safe space or asking proper questions for an asylum interview?
As I worked with women preparing them for their Credible Fear Interviews it was quickly apparent that there was often a surface story, and then the more horrific one below it. Only with time, patience & trust could the full story emerge – and in many cases this was their first time being able to share their truth. In many cases there is a surface story of extortion or gang violence, but more time, and the right questions, would reveal underlying factors such as religion, political beliefs, ethnicity, and LGBTQ. It is entirely common for them to go through their first 2 steps in the asylum process without revealing absolutely key factors that could make all the difference. Why not? Fear is for sure an element. While in detainment, women talk – and a lot of myths are spread, such as “If you talk about x, your children will be taken away.” This is not the truth, and especially challenging since factor X may actually be their best hope of asylum.
If a credible fear interview gets a “negative” result, that means the U.S. has determined they do not have sufficient evidence that they are in danger of violence or persecution should they a) return to their home or b) move elsewhere in their country of origin. Given the factors described above, it is not surprising that credible fear positives are very hard to get at this time.
Thankfully they do have a chance to appeal and have their case heard before a judge. This was our other primary task at Dilley – preparing women for their court date. In this scenario we have the advantage of seeing the transcript from their first interview, and identifying where the gaps were so they can be better prepared, and helping them understand the parts of their story they need to be sure to communicate clearly. These court cases typically involve 15 minutes in front of a judge on a screen with a volunteer lawyer & a translator, hardly due process but it at least represents a second chance. Still, only a small percentage of these cases have the decisions reversed so they can proceed with their asylum case. Most will then be deported back to their country of origin (and not allowed to claim asylum again for a full 5 years), or sometimes to an alternate country (I could write an entire article on this problematic policy…)
Our days at the centre were long, typically 13 hours of almost non-stop clients. I admit to being somewhat surprised by the degree of traumatic experiences being shared. I had anticipated a mix of gang violence and extortion, rape, and domestic violence. The stories we heard, however, go so far beyond what I could have imagined – and these are just the women who happened to pass through this week. The scope of suffering and degree of persecution is beyond what I can conceive of, and it is happening just south of the U.S. border, including in Mexico.
I’m having a memory of an powerful essay by author Sandra Cisneros that I came across years ago, speaking to her experience in Bosnia:
“A woman I know is in there. In that country. A woman I love as any woman would love a woman. That woman, hermana de mi corazon, sister of my heart. I know this woman. And I am in San Antonio, and the days and the hours and the months pass and the newspapers cry: Something must be done! Somebody, someone, help this somebody! And I hear that somebody. And I know that somebody. And I love that somebody. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.”
That is how I have felt for years now. In my years of birth work, I often invoked the image of the love warrior: She who knows what to do when she doesn’t know what to do. The women and children I met at Dilley embodied this fierce knowing & strength in abundance. I am listening, and learning from them, and will continue to the best of my ability. Thank you for for listening as well.
If you’re still reading you are likely wondering how you can learn more, donate, or get involved?
Call your senators and congressional representatives. Speak out in your community. Find ways you can help local migrant families who are seeking asylum. Donate to nonprofit organizations that fight to help immigrants every day.
Here are some helpful links:
Interested in volunteering at Dilley? Click here to learn more – a great fit for those of you fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole, and pro bono lawyers and social workers. FYI, for those of you interested in interpretation but unable to travel, there is also the option to volunteer as a remote on-call translator by phone throughout the week in 2 hour shifts.
Want to donate? Here are just a few worthy organizations: Raices Texas, Project Amplify/, Al Otro Lado Border Rights Project, Casa Marianella, and the Dilley Pro Bono Project, and Project Starfish Minnesota.
Wonderful arts project offering migrant testimonies to be used in works of art to spread awareness: Project Amplify **Follow Project Amplify on facebook to see daily posts sharing short and powerful excerpts of migrant experiences in detention.
Al Otro Lado project in Tijuana https://alotrolado.org/programs/border-rights-project/
Powerful images of the border https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-10-photographers-told-story-us-mexico-border
Humane Borders Nonprofit https://humaneborders.org/
No More Deaths https://nomoredeaths.org/en/
Book Lover? Send bilingual and Spanish-language books for migrants to the Libros Para el Viaje project.
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