Ana, a 40-year-old mother of two, turned to me visibly anxiety-stricken. An asylum officer had been assigned to evaluate her claim of asylum and determine whether she would be permitted to pursue it in Immigration Court or be deported back to Honduras. Through an interpreter, the officer had asked Ana a question over a tinny, crackling speakerphone.
From our short time together, during which she painstakingly shared details of the most intimate and traumatic events of her life—physical and emotional abuse, marital rape, and threats against her life and her children’s—I knew that she had not understood the interpreter.
Being fluent in Spanish myself, I knew the translation was poor. But as an asylum advocate, I was not permitted to translate for my client, nor to speak on her behalf. Advocates may only request that specific questions be asked, which the asylum officer may deny at his or her discretion, and provide a closing statement of the asylum seeker’s claim. Tears of frustration, of not understanding, and of uncertainty at whether she herself was being understood, began to fill Ana’s eyes. Her fear of returning to Honduras was palpable.
Instinctively, I leaned toward Ana to comfort her but stopped short as the asylum officer darted me a cautionary look, a reminder that touching detainees was strictly prohibited. Human nature urged me to console and encourage Ana silently through a pat on the back or a reassuring hug, but such a disregard of ICE-imposed rules at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley could warrant immediate and indefinite dismissal from the facility.
Instead, going against every fiber of my humanity, I passed Ana a tissue, gave her a reassuring look, and reminded her of her right to ask for clarification if she didn’t understand a question. The possibility of my being kicked out was too big a risk to take. Ana took my offering, blotted her eyes, gave me a look of understanding, took a deep breath, and mustered all her strength to set forth her claim of asylum to protect her life and those of her children.
I had only been in Dilley for three days before Anna’s hearing. I arrived in Dilley in the early morning hours of a Monday in January with my team of six student attorneys, two social workers, two translators and two attorneys who were part of the University at Buffalo School of Law’s U.S.-Mexico Border Clinic led by Assistant Clinical Professor Nicole Hallett.
My classmates and I spent our winter break preparing for the one-week trip to Dilly where we would provide volunteer legal services to detained asylum seekers. Our training included an immigration law boot camp class where we learned the complexities and intricacies of asylum law in the United States. By noon on the third day of our trip, I was advocating for a client’s safety and well-being. My partner, a fellow law student, and I had met with Ana for her legal consultation no more than 24 hours prior to her hearing, as we did with nearly 40 other asylum seekers during our weeklong trip. With all our clients, we tried our best to distill and teach the essential elements of an asylum claim that must be demonstrated to prevent deportation.
U.S. asylum law is a complex, convoluted and rapidly changing area of practice, even for those in the legal field. We stressed the importance of telling their individual stories within the context of the legal framework and articulating why they had a credible fear of imminent persecution if they were to return home.
Busloads of new detainees arrive daily to the 2,200-bed facility, and each asylum seeker requires legal consultation. The Dilley Pro Bono Project is endowed with armies of volunteer and student attorneys working 13-hour days, six days a week, hamstrung by ICE rules and the physical limitations of a modular legal trailer. Because of the sheer number of detainees who need assistance, most are not accompanied to their credible fear interview—they go it alone.
Usually, after the preparatory meetings, our clients would understand the process of their credible fear interview and be confident in their ability to tell their story. Ana was different. She remained unsure, nervous and asked if I would attend with her. My attendance at Ana’s hearing required an escort to the asylum officer’s modular trailer. In the end, Ana didn’t need me at all. She already demonstrated her strength and fortitude in how she protected her children during their monthlong trip to the border.
Ana’s brave story is just one of hundreds that my classmates and I heard that week in Dilley—stories of gang violence, violence against women, ineffective police and fear of persecution. Each was unique, yet entirely too familiar.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador 10 years ago, I lived in communities plagued with gangs and grew to understand their pervasiveness in society. I learned what areas to avoid, learned to make sure to be home and locked indoors before sundown and attended the funerals of community members killed by gangs.
I even saw members of my own community, desperate for safety and fleeing threats against their lives travel north when they found themselves out of options for survival. Over the years, the violence has only increased while police and governments have further lost their effectiveness in keeping their citizens safe.
With every story I heard, the reality of the humanitarian crisis in Central America became acutely apparent. The similarities demonstrated an ongoing crisis, and each story’s specificity rose to the level of persecution, laying the foundation for a claim of asylum. These asylum seekers were not risking their lives and those of their children for the promise of economic opportunity; they were fleeing for their lives.
Reaching the southern border of the United States is not the end of the journey for asylum seekers, but rather the first step in what’s likely to be a years-long battle for recognition and protection of basic human rights. Without legal representation, through non-profit organizations and student lawyer programs like the Dilley Pro Bono Project and the U.S.-Mexico Border Clinic at UB School of Law, bona fide claims like Ana’s will never be appropriately adjudicated.
Rosellen Marohn is a second-year student at the University at Buffalo School of Law, a former Peace Corps volunteer (El Salvador, 2009 to 2011), and a participant in the law school’s U.S.-Mexico Border Clinic.