When immigrants attempt to cross the border without the required documents, U.S. immigration officials must ask if they are entering the country out of fear. Often these people are seeking refuge from dangers in their home countries. If the answer is yes, international law states that officials cannot refuse entrance. But getting that “yes” is not always easy, and as part of their spring projects, Armando Hazaveh, Victoria Glynn, and Claudia Inglessis (all ’18) decided to help.
From April 13 to 22, the three seniors volunteered to spend hour-long sessions with women and children at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, to ready them for a Credible Fear Interview, or CFI. During a CFI, detainees tell their stories to a judge and an asylum official. If the stories are deemed worthy of asylum—protection and entrance into the United States—the immigrants can file a case for it, a process that then takes multiple years. If not, they are sent back to the detention center and either appeal for asylum again or get deported.
As the largest immigration detention institution for families in the country with a holding capacity of 2,400, the center is 50 acres in deeply rural Southern Texas. Harsh white stadium lights mark the area, visible for miles against the night sky. Inside, for security reasons, the lights are dimmed but never completely off. The compound is organized into “neighborhoods,” detainees live in trailers, and their mug shots are posted on the doors. The majority of these faces are children’s.
CoreCivic, a company that primarily manages private prisons, runs the center. However, these detainees are not criminals. Armando said the women who are detained here have cooperated with U.S. immigration laws from the beginning in order not to jeopardize their own safety and the safety of their children.
“They have to be detained in order to declare fear,” Armando said. “None of them ever lived in the US. They wouldn’t be eligible if they did.”
During the practice sessions for the CFIs, the detainee tells her story to the volunteer—including why she fled her home country and what brought her to the U.S.—and the volunteer coaches her, explaining which parts of the story would be more likely to win over a judge and which parts should go unmentioned. Although the government provides a Spanish-speaking interpreter, there are no court-appointed lawyers, so a volunteer who speaks Spanish is often a detainee’s best and only resource.
“We’re essentially just trying to get these cases to be heard and help these women tell their story in an effective way,” Armando said. “Because most of them have very little education, telling a story and making an argument is not as simple for them as it might be for us.”
Armando, Claudia, and Victoria all took the senior elective Law and Literature, taught by English Teacher Sarah Getchell, which exposed them to a variety of social justice opportunities and inspired them to remain involved with the work. Upon their request, Ms. Getchell connected them with the CARA Pro Bono Project, an amalgamation of four different organizations that represent women and children incarcerated in Dilley and operate pro bono, meaning they are entirely volunteer-based. She said the experience revealed to the volunteers a shocking aspect of the legal system.
“We usually think that the legal system works pretty well, and maybe it serves a lot of people we know pretty effectively, but this is a very underserved population,” Ms. Getchell said. “So seeing that firsthand and actually seeing the conditions in which these people are living is pretty eye-opening and hopefully will motivate them to do more work like this in the future.”
Ms. Getchell said she wishes future volunteers gain exposure to what is often a theoretical problem to many members of the school community.
“I hope they realize that there are huge ways in which they can help make change right now, without a law degree or even a college degree,” she said.
In preparation, the three seniors did required reading and signed copious legal documents. They also underwent a two-hour web-based orientation a week before arrival and a three-hour on-site orientation at the start of the trip. The program’s website specifies that they are looking for Spanish speakers and that volunteers are responsible for all their own costs.
The seniors agreed that the level of commitment required for only a week of work was worth their time.
“It’s a responsibility you didn’t know you had until you go there and do it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I should have been doing this kind of work the entire time,’” Armando said. “You see real people with real problems, and you think, this is really more of a human issue than it is a political issue.”
The current success rate of immigrants passing their CFIs is 98 to 99 percent, according to Armando. This means that they may proceed with their case for asylum. Then the immigrants may remain in detainment, or they can be released on a bond and leave the center to start a new and safer life in the U.S.
The three seniors shared their experience with peers during Senior Class Meeting on Friday, May 4.