26 January 2017

On January 11, the Strauss Center’s Mexican Security Initiative sponsored a field trip visit to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, for students of its “Cartel Violence in Mexico” class. These students are currently engaged in the in-depth study of the security challenge posed by organized crime in Mexico and Central America, and the various policy responses the Mexican federal government has attempted in response.

Kathryn Lundstrom, one of the students that was part of this visit, shared her experience at the detention center:

“The most important part of [our trip to Dilley] was the way that it made the issue of immigration much more tangible to me. […]

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We arrived in Dilley on Tuesday evening, the night before we began our three-day volunteering stint, though most volunteers come on Sunday and stay for the week. Our lodgings, a hotel consisting of a cluster of portable structures like mobile homes, were just down the country road from the South Texas Family Residential Center with a prison nestled in between […] When we arrived at the Detention Center the next day, we were ushered through the metal detectors, questioned sternly by the guards to ensure we didn’t bring our cell phones, and given visitor badges in exchange for our IDs.

The portable trailer that houses the CARA project, the group of pro-bono lawyers we were going to be working with, has an entrance for volunteers at one end, and an entrance for the residents at the other end, both doors monitored by guards. After making our way in and getting a tour of the space and making use of the Keurig, I dropped off my things at a table along the wall and sat in on an intake “charla,” or chat.

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The project organizes its communication to the women at the detention center with these scheduled group charlas, one when they make their first visit to CARA after arriving, and one after they receive the date of their CFI (Credible Fear Interview). The CFI is a one-on-one meeting between the client and an asylum officer, with a translator on speakerphone, where they have to prove that they’ve got a real fear of going back home. In order to prep the women for this interview and to explain the process that they’re being subjected to, CARA volunteers take women, one by one, and let them explain their situation ahead of time so that the volunteers can help point out which parts of their stories are most important for their asylum case. Ninety-eight percent of CARA clients make it through the CFI project, which is much higher than other detention centers around the country, likely due to the simple practice of telling the story once ahead of time before heading in to talk to the asylum officer.

For the women that we talked to, [the biggest fear] was fear of violence. Usually gang violence associated with MS-13 or 18th Street Gang and usually from Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras. We talked to a few, though, who were fleeing the Zetas in Mexico, and many who couldn’t associate the violence and threats to a specific gang but described a culture of gang violence and violence against women that was impossible to escape without fleeing the country.

Although the CARA project is able to get them through their CFI most of the time, they then have a year to figure out the rest of their asylum case, and most end up being deported. Some of the women we talked to were trying again after already having been deported and trying again to make it work in their own country, but fearing for their lives or the lives of their children.

It was a surreal experience to listen to these stories straight from so many women who were mostly my age (26) or younger describe such horror and violence, children in tow, often who are the result of rape. And then to think of [how] they’ve been referred to in our nation’s political discourse over the last year and a half…

[…] I want everyone who’s said terrible things about immigrants to actually hear the stories of migrants…”

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