I’m sitting in a trailer, in a small room furnished with a table and two chairs. There is a woman sitting across the table from me. She has a squirming child held down firmly in her lap. She is telling me why she left Honduras. I half-understand Spanish, so the meaning of her speech is reaching me in a muffled, underwater kind of way. In a few seconds, a telephonic interpreter will translate her words into English for me. The voice from the phone has the polite, neutral cadence of someone who is used to translating business conference calls.
The woman is telling me how a local gang member used to follow her home every day after work. Now the little boy in her lap is chewing on a pen he snatched off the table. His face is covered with small pen-marks. As his mother begins to tell me about the time she was raped, I see the cap of the pen vanish into the boy’s mouth. I watch the pointed tip emerge and retract several times threateningly between his lips, like a black bee-stinger. Ah shit, I think, what if this kid accidentally swallows that cap? I don’t want to interrupt his mother, who is in the middle of telling me one of the worst things that’s ever happened to her. I also don’t want her child to choke to death in front of us both.
I’ve almost mustered up the right combination of Spanish and frantic gesticulation to alert the mother to the situation, when the kid suddenly spits out the cap with a wet pop. He grins at me openmouthed, his tongue blue with ink.
I want to smile, so the kid doesn’t think I’m angry at him. But this is a bad moment to smile. I don’t want the mother to think I’m smiling at what she’s telling me. In the end, I have no idea what kind of a face I end up making. Some sort of hideous half-grimace, probably.
As with all of these consultations, I come away thinking of a hundred things I should have done differently. Under other circumstances, I would probably brood over this interaction for hours, replaying it over and over in my mind. But now I simply don’t have the time. There are many more women to see.
The inside of the visitors’ trailer, and the bits of scenery visible out the various office windows—revealing, what else, more trailers—are the most I ever see of the South Texas Family Residential Center. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private prison company that manages the center, doesn’t allow outsiders to wander around the facilities. Viewed from the front, the optics of this “family residence” aren’t too great. There are dozens of floodlights suspended on high poles, and below them, rows upon rows of little trailers, all surrounded by a big fence. It looks like an internment camp. And that, more or less, is what it is.
The South Texas Family Residential Center is the place where we detain many of the mothers and children who approach our southern border without papers. Not all of the women even make it this far. The Border Patrol officers who pick them up will usually attempt to persuade them—sometimes with threats—to sign self-deportation orders. But if a woman tells the officer she’s afraid to return to her home country, he may send her and her children to a detention center to await something called a “credible fear interview.” The outcome of this interview will determine if she can remain in the United States to formally apply for asylum, or if she’ll be deported back to the country she fled.
The vast majority of these women and children are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, whose citizens have been fleeing in large numbers since around 2014. In these countries, organized gangs control large territories, and the impunity rate for violent crime, including murder, rape, and domestic violence, is estimated to be as high as 95%. The two biggest gangs in Central America, MS-13 and Barrio 18, were originally founded in Los Angeles, and expanded to Central America when the U.S. deported a large number of gang members in the 1990s. In a region exhausted by decades of conflict (in which U.S. meddling played no small part), with weak civic institutions and high unemployment, the gangs proliferated rapidly. MS-13 and Barrio 18 rely on extortion to sustain themselves, and they exact compliance through terror. For sheer, cinematic horror, their techniques—arson, murder, rape, kidnapping, mutilation, decapitation—rival anything that ISIS has been getting up to on the other side of the Atlantic. A lot of the refugees fleeing the Northern Triangle don’t even try to sneak across the border. Rather, they present themselves directly to border patrol officials, hoping they will protect them.
When women and children first began appearing at the border in significant numbers, during Obama’s presidency, they were detained and processed in a highly clandestine manner. Women, along with their children, were locked up without access to legal counsel. Exhausted, traumatized, terrified, most of them were rapidly deported without any substantive opportunity to appeal the decision to a judge. The purpose of this high-speed deportation mill was to get people out the country as quickly and unpleasantly as possible, in the hopes that rumors of this poor reception would deter future border-crossers. Then some immigration lawyers got wind of the situation and decided to set up permanent shop right next to the family detention centers. Since the lawyers got involved, rates of positive credible fear determinations have gone up exponentially, indicating that a lot of the people who were deported under the earlier system almost certainly had viable asylum claims.
This legal operation, dubbed the CARA Pro Bono Project, is no small feat, requiring a massive expenditure of private resources: most of the legal assistants on the ground at any given time are out-of-town volunteers who travel to the detention center at their own expense and live out of hotel rooms. The South Texas Family Residential Center is located in Dilley, Texas, a tiny town about an hour’s drive from the border, far from the metropolitan centers where lawyers tend to be concentrated. A briefly up-and-coming but now mostly abandoned fracking town, Dilley has a disproportionately large number of gas stations and motels, but not much else. (According to its Wikipedia page, it also has a haunted grain silo, which I regret to say I never visited.) The detainee population inside the detention center, which can house up to 2,400 people, is usually about half as big as the population of the entire town of 3,800.
I first glimpse the women of the detention center sitting in a circle, listening to an orientation speech by a CARA volunteer. I am struck by how small many of them are: seated in their chairs, their dangling feet barely graze the floor. Some of the women are holding babies, or have toddlers playing in front of their chairs. They have all recently traveled approximately 1450 miles across Mexico, partly on foot, a long journey fraught with terrible dangers, from Mexican immigration authorities, from drug cartels, from drifters and fellow-migrants. One woman begins speaking about her time in an hielera: this is a U.S. Border Patrol cell where migrants are held for several days right after they’re apprehended. The cells are air-conditioned to uncomfortably frigid temperatures, are continually illuminated all through the night, and usually have no cots or blankets to sleep on. The woman tells a story about how her child wanted a drink of water and the officer wouldn’t give her any. My Anglophone brain, trying to parse the Spanish on the fly, catches on a word that I know, that I keep hearing over and over: llorando, llorando, llorando—crying, crying, crying.
One staff member described the CARA Pro Bono Project to me as “a cross between a legal aid office and an emergency room.” Every week, new women and children arrive at the detention center. The CARA volunteers’ job is to prepare these mothers for their credible fear interviews with the asylum office. In order to pass her interview, the woman must state enough facts to show that she could, potentially, win an asylum case in court. If she can do that, she’ll be paroled out of the detention center with a notice to appear before a court on a particular date. But if she doesn’t tell the asylum officer the right information, or if the asylum officer doesn’t believe her story, she is in immediate danger of deportation. In addition, for the many women who won’t be able to afford private lawyers and may not have access to pro bono assistance after they leave the detention center, this consultation with CARA may be the last and only time they get to speak to a legal adviser of any kind.
“You want to tell them that they can breathe easy now, that they’re in a safe place, that the United States will welcome and protect them. But of course, you can’t promise them anything…”
I talk to women back-to-back for eight or nine hours a day. I hear a lot of stories. The stories are all similar: they all have elements in common, but they are all different: there are always strange details, elaborate side-narratives, that make each story untidy, and thus, somehow, more plausible. “Why did you leave your country?” I ask, and all the women begin their reply, almost without exception, with “Por miedo”—because of fear. Many women talk about the gangs: how the gangs extorted them, attacked them, murdered their family members, threatened to forcibly recruit their young children. Some women fled because they received an anonymous phone call, or a threatening note slipped under their door. It might have come from a gang, it might not: they have no idea. They may have fled because a frightening-looking man stood in front of their house three nights in row, or because a tattooed stranger made an “I’m watching you” gesture at them in the street. In an environment of continuous threat and sudden eruptions of violence, signs of impending lethal danger are often strange, inarticulate, highly contextual.
The other major theme is domestic violence. Abused women who are coming from countries where the police refuse to intervene over “private” family matters, or don’t have the resources to control offenders, may have a legally solid asylum case. The precise legal formulation for a successful domestic violence case hinges on whether the woman had the ability to leave her partner without facing retribution, whether her partner considered her to be his personal property. And so you always ask: “Did he ever say you were his property? Did he ever say that because you were a woman, you had to do whatever he said?”
The initial response I get from almost every woman I interview is the same: a sudden, wry smile. What the smile means I can’t quite say—I think it’s something between gratification that I’ve guessed correctly, and a kind of amusement that I even had to ask something so obvious. “Yes,” they reply, “he said that all the time.”
Many people bring their children into the room with them during consultations. Some mothers are, understandably, reluctant to let their children out of sight. Others are still breastfeeding their infants or toddlers. Consultations are intermittently interrupted by temper tantrums and deferred-naptime meltdowns. One woman has to stop her story of abuse several times as her son barges playfully in and out of the room. “He’s old enough to understand,” his mother tells me in a nervous voice. Another woman tells me how a gang member tried to run her down in his car, chasing after her while she ran with her child in her arms. “He still has nightmares about the car,” she whispers, nodding to her son. The little boy, suddenly frightened, begins grabbing her arms urgently, trying to climb into her lap, saying over and over, “El carro, mamá, el carro.” Yet another woman puts her head down on the table and sobs, begging me not to let them send her home, crying that she would rather spend the rest of her life in prison in the United States than go back to her country. Moments earlier, she had described to me how a gang member had threatened to cut up her daughter into four pieces. She had good reason to believe that this was no idle threat: the same gang member had already killed and dismembered her uncle.
In the corner of the office, her daughter is playing with a toy truck. Not long ago, someone, somewhere, was looking at the living body of this child and contemplating cutting her into four pieces.
Like being an EMT, working in asylum law gradually fucks up your normal emotional reactions. You get eerily accustomed to watching near-strangers cry in front of you. You also experience a disturbing sense of relief whenever a client reveals some harrowing detail that will bolster their case. The legal standards in asylum law are, frankly, bizarre. Under the law, you can get asylum if you can show that you have a “well-founded fear” of future persecution, “on account of” a protected ground, at the hands of your government or an actor that your government is “unwilling or unable” to control. Sometimes the hardest thing to prove is the “on account of a protected ground” part: you have to show you were targeted for a specific reason, namely, “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” If someone in your home country is trying to murder you because he just hates your guts, that’s not persecution. If you live in an active conflict zone where everyone is being indiscriminately targeted for violence, that’s not persecution. You have to prove that there’s something about you, some belief you hold, some “immutable characteristic,” that made someone decide to come after you. Tiny details, like the specific insult somebody used when they were threatening you, can become hugely relevant. So a woman comes to you with her story, and its natural points of narrative emphasis: and you must suggest to her different points of emphasis, the ones that are legally relevant, even though no sane person outside our legal system would think these kinds of details mattered a damn, in terms of whether somebody deserves to be sent home to a life of unremitting violence and fear.
In a little office room, it’s just you, and this woman you only met a minute ago, talking about some of the worst things that can happen to a human being. It’s a strangely intimate experience, having that level of trust suddenly placed in you, even if you know it’s borne of desperation, rather than anything you’ve done to earn it. You want to offer these women some word of encouragement. You want to tell them that they can breathe easy now, that they’re in a safe place, that the United States will welcome and protect them after all they’ve suffered. But of course, you can’t promise them anything. So instead, you nudge a box of tissues across the table, and try to think of something you can say. What you can say are mostly platitudes, but they are also true. “You’re strong, to have survived so much. You’re a brave person, to have come all this way. You did the right thing, to protect your children. You’re well-prepared for your interview.”
I was a volunteer at Dilley in August 2016. Halfway through my time there, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gave his first major immigration policy speech. He announced his intention to build an impenetrable southern border wall, complete with aerial drones and underground sensors. He discussed expanding immigration detention, tripling the number of ICE and Border Patrol officers. He conjured up a terrifying picture of the widespread violence and lawlessness threatening innocent U.S. citizens across the land, all because of lax immigration enforcement.
“I felt, viscerally, that a single fingernail or hair follicle of any one of these women was worth more than Donald Trump’s entire body.”
Listening to Trump’s speech, I thought about the dozens of women I had spoken to so far. They had all been, without exception, shockingly gracious, warm, and friendly, greeting me with smiles, laughing indulgently at my bad Spanish, earnestly answering all the terrible and intrusive questions I had to ask them. They were at once ordinary, and also the heroes of unwritten epics. I imagined these women and their children, at the end of their long, perilous journey across the whole length of Mexico, coming up against an impenetrable wall, coming up against a Border Patrol officer who’s been implicitly authorized to turn a deaf ear to their pleas. I imagined what the return journey would feel like, heading southwards again, knowing that you were going back to the same hell you had risked so much to leave, knowing that your escape attempt will certainly have been noted, knowing that it will not go unpunished. I felt, viscerally, that a single fingernail or hair follicle of any one of these women was worth more than Donald Trump’s entire body.
Now, every one of the talking points from Trump’s policy speech has resurfaced in the form of executive orders. Though Trump’s “Muslim ban” has received the most national attention, his executive orders on border security and interior enforcement—which include promises to “end the abuse of parole and asylum provisions currently used to prevent the lawful removal of removable aliens”—are the ones that pose the greatest danger to refugees coming from the south. These orders contemplate a relocation of significant enforcement and adjudication resources to the border. They envision the universal detention of all people entering the U.S. without authorization, and a possible halt to the parole system, which has previously allowed people who aren’t deemed to pose a security risk—like the mothers at Dilley—to be released from detention centers on bond, or with ankle monitors, during the multi-year adjudication process for their case. It remains to be seen exactly how these orders will be carried out in practice, and whether Congress will appropriate the necessary funds for their most ambitious provisions. But it certainly isn’t comforting that all the agencies which deal with immigration matters, including the immigration courts, are part of the executive branch.
The orders, if fulfilled to their maximum extent, would create a system where asylum-seekers are detained in centers near the border until the outcome of their case is resolved, with limited access to attorneys, far from their family members and support networks in the United States. They would not be able to take their cases to, say, California or Massachusetts, where the case law is generally more favorable and asylum grant rates are higher. Instead, more immigration judges would be stationed along the border, where legal aid resources for immigrants are already stretched to the limit.
In these uncertain times, it’s far from clear whether CARA and the other legal organizations that work in detention centers will continue to have their present level of access to detainees. The CARA system in Dilley has worked well, in part, because the organization eventually came to enjoy a certain level of respectful cooperation from the private prison authority and from ICE under President Obama. (Indeed, CARA was sometimes annoyingly touted by visiting government officials as an example of how well the family detention system was working; look, we know that detaining toddlers and nursing mothers sounds bad, but hey! We let them have lawyers!). A more hostile tone within ICE could have a huge impact on these arrangements. Small, vindictive policy changes, like reductions in consultation spaces, or banning the volunteers’ wireless network, could significantly gum up CARA’s operations. Under the Trump administration, ICE might do something even more brazen, like simply refuse to let lawyers see their would-be clients at all. CCA, the private prison authority, has already tried this maneuver at adult detention centers, repeatedly. It’s hard to know how far they might now test the boundaries of the law, which already offers far from optimum protection for immigrant detainees.
Inhumane asylum proceedings and unforgiving enforcement policies may well, over time, have a deterrent effect on border-crossings. When those border numbers drop, we can expect to hear the figures cited at press briefings. It will be hailed as a major policy victory. But we mustn’t forget what those numbers mean. They mean women trapped in violent homes, in violent cities, with no means of escape. They mean children run down with cars, children chopped into pieces. To plead for the vulnerability of children feels, at times, like a cheap rhetorical trick, or a denial of the deservingness of other kinds of people. But if we can’t care about children, we can’t care about anyone. And if these children and their parents stop showing up in person to our border, no further hint of their sufferings will even make our morning news.