The not guilty verdict by a San Francisco jury Nov. 30, 2017, in the case of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, the undocumented homeless Mexican immigrant accused of murdering Kate Steinle, has once again ignited the national discourse about immigration in our country. Of course, Zarate has come to be, for many, the symbol of illegal immigration.
We recently returned from a weeklong tour of duty at the nation’s largest immigration detention center for women and children in Dilley,Texas. Working under the auspices of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, we spent a week as volunteers helping to prepare the women to meet/speak with an immigration judge as part of what is called a credible fear hearing.This hearing is the first step in the asylum process. In light of the outcry provoked by the acquittal of Zarate and our recent experiences in Dilley, it feels like an appropriate moment to offer another portrait of the population that has drawn such ire from a segment of our nation’s population.
While we were there, we interviewed and counseled some 223 women—all of whom had been detained crossing the U.S./Mexico border. Many of them had committed no crime at all—they made no attempt to sneak across the border in the dead of night. Instead, they walked up, hands raised, asking our nation to consider them as asylum seekers—a longstanding and well-recognized lawful status in our country.
Many of us use the phrase “in search of a better life” when speaking about immigrants, but the truth of what we saw was even starker than that. The women that we interviewed came to Texas out of necessity. They were quite literally running for their lives. A few examples:
One woman we met lived a solidly middle-class life in her hometown in El Salvador until one day her life was shattered. While now divorced, she had been married to a local police chief deeply committed to ending gang violence in their town. Recently the police had arrested a local gang member and come across a video on his cellphone depicting the children and exhorting fellow gang members to bring the heads of our client’s 12- and 10-year-old sons to him. This woman and her kids left that night, taking buses, walking through the desert for weeks, until they turned themselves in, hands raised, at the border.
Another representative example is that of a young Honduran woman who, following her high school graduation, moved to a more prominent town with her two young children and got a good job. She was doing well. For that very reason, the local gangs identified her as someone who might have money, and they kidnapped her one day when she was walking to work. Every day for one month, she was raped by her captors. Finally, she managed to escape, ran to get her children, and fled. She, too, ended up at the border, hands raised in surrender.
Time and time again, we heard stories of women who had set up their own businesses—selling tortillas or cakes or bottled water. The moment they started to eke out a living, the gangs would appear and demand a monthly “protection” payment. If the women refused to—or could not—pay, the price would be the murder of their children, or rape, or burning down their house.
And time and time again, we heard of how women endure terrible violence and choose to stay. If it were just them affected, they could manage, they felt. Until the moment the violence extended to their children. That was when these devoted mothers said “no more” and fled.
Imagine what it would take for you to pick up and leave everything you know: your extended family, your loved ones, your entire life. All that is ahead is a dangerous and uncertain journey by bus, by train, on foot through the desert, to a country where you don’t speak the language and where your first experience is living in an overcrowded detention center, and you and your children are referred to by a number, as is the case at Dilley.
Regardless of how you might feel about the Zarate verdict, we cannot talk about the face of immigration without acknowledging the thousands of law-abiding women and children from Central America and elsewhere who come to this country in search of safety, security and opportunity. So when discussing how to address immigration, an issue that we can all acknowledge is complicated, let us not lose compassion and empathy for women like those that we encountered in south Texas.
Richard Klawiter is a partner and Jennifer Eldridge is an associate in the Chicago office of global law firm DLA Piper.