By Carlos A. Valenzuela, an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow with the Safe Passage Project.
Traveling to the South Texas Family Residential Center detention facility in Dilley, Texas has marked my personal and professional life in incredible ways. The detention center currently holds over 1800 women and children; it has capacity for hundreds more women and children who will inevitably cross the border tomorrow and every day after that. The majority of women are fleeing the region of Central America known as the Northern Triangle; El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The women and children seek protection from patriarchal systems that have made them vulnerable and easy targets for transnational criminal organizations and individual men, alike. Now in detention, a refugee woman’s ticket out is a credible fear interview in which she must demonstrate, to a single non-Spanish speaking asylum officer, that she fears returning to her home country and that there is a 10% probability that she and her child will be harmed if returned.
The US government often misapplies its own standards. All of the women and children should be released, but as of now our system is an antiquated machine designed to spit family units back to the dangerous countries they flee. The machine called private family detention must be shut down. Each day it remains intact is another day a woman and her child face death in their home country.
As one of the volunteers who travelled to Dilley, Texas to work in the detention facility, I was one of two men. Initially I felt intimidated by the work we had to do with the detained women for several reasons. First, I did not completely understand the rules of the detention centers, and secondly, I was afraid that women would not want to share their stories with me because I am a man. I have read, and quickly gathered from working at the detention center, that men are the primary cause of the harm the women suffer in Central America. I feared that because I am a Central American man, I would make the women feel uncomfortable and they would refuse to share their stories because I would “not understand” or would “judge them.” I did not want to be the cause for which the women would not express fear and then fail their credible fear interviews, which could result in deportation. Fortunately, the women were willing to speak to me.
Story after story, interview after interview, the premise was evident: these women and children are escaping countries where the patriarchal system not only oppressed and shamed them, but also failed to protect them. Many of the women I spoke to suffered recurring rape, domestic violence, death threats and depression in various forms. All the women had one thing in common; their eyes all reflected the pain they have suffered ever since they could remember and had consciousness of their surroundings. No woman in the detention center had a glimmer of light in her eyes; they were hopeless, confused and without energy. Yet, somehow they mustered the courage to travel to the United States with their children to seek liberation from their persecutors; their persecutors were men and systems that give men rights over women.
And then, there I was … the women travelled 1500 miles from Central America to sit in front of and tell a Central American man about their most intimate pains, their most horrifying experiences and their most humiliating memories because I was going to help them get through their credible fear interviews so they could leave detention. All they had to do was trust me.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I was perhaps initially a symbol of oppression in these women’s eyes. In one instance, I resembled the monster that stole a woman’s innocence when she was six years old. It was tough for me to respond to that comment. I also sparked memories, to some of the women’s children, of the father they had to escape because he was physically and emotionally abusive toward him or her. A two year old asked his mother if I was his “papa.” In another instance, I resembled a lost son. These were only some of the barriers that I discovered within the first day of interviewing women who were going into their credible fear interviews. And yet, none of the women refused to be interviewed by me or have their cases prepared by me.
I entered every credible fear preparation interview with a smile on my face. The women all smiled back; whether it was sincere or out of courtesy I could not tell at first glance, but I knew that I wanted to get them to sincerely smile by the end. My first question in every interview was “how are you and how are people in the detention center treating you?” Most answered my question non-chalantly, but some expressed shock at the fact that I had asked how they were doing, as if I was the first man to ever ask them that question. It was interesting to me and so I usually followed the question with a brief explanation of who I am and my goal of helping them get out of detention. My goal was also to check in with them in case they needed anything, such as medical attention for their children and to make sure that they could express their fear in a way that would help them obtain positive results in their interviews. Aside from that brief explanation, I always told them the conversation was confidential; most of the women in the center do not have high levels of education and so an explanation of the word “confidential” was key in many of the interviews. Lastly, without fail, I reassured the women that nothing would offend me and they should feel free to say anything that was on their mind because ultimately it would be helpful in their case.
In some instances the women would tell me the threats they received and would cut out the curse words. I encouraged them to say the words so they could express themselves, but also to give a channel through which to throw those words away from their minds. Some of the women were uncomfortable as they said certain words and I could tell that saying the words drained some energy from them, but it was also a form of liberation for them. They were not restricted and that is all that the women want; they want to be free and perhaps having that liberty in front of a Central American man made the experience more powerful. It was probably the first time a man told them to be free and that he would not judge them. My goal was to be the anti-thesis of everything they know about Central American men. I wanted them to see me as a channel through which they could develop their own voice.
By overcoming the barrier of being a symbol of oppression and discomfort, I was able to speak to the detained women about their entire life stories on their terms. I did not set any rules and in fact, I broke the rules under which they lived. In their home countries, speaking their minds would have meant death, rape and punishment. When they spoke to me, I wanted them to pour out their souls. I wanted them to begin a process of recuperation while learning to develop their asylum claims for when they were released from detention. The women opened up their minds; I saw it in their tears and heard it in the vibrations of their words. It was an honor to hear all of their stories, but it was also a burden because as a man, I could never fully understand what these women have endured.
Toward the end of my stay in Dilley, I was feeling tired, depressed and in one instance toward the end of the week, I was scared. I was ashamed to feel some of the feelings I had. Perhaps I was unconsciously beginning to adopt some of the feelings the women expressed to me during all of the preparatory interviews. In this case, I was scared for a woman who failed three attempts at showing fear of returning to her home country. She failed because the system failed her. No one explained to her that the interviews were confidential and that her family would not know about her statements; she was fleeing her family. Thus, she decided not to disclose anything in any interview. I met with her for the first time on a Wednesday and after breaking through barriers of gender norms and fear, she told me the reasons for why she fled. She disclosed that she suffered rape, death threats and harassment in very severe forms. On Thursday I completed her declaration in support of a plea to the government to give her a last chance to express her fear. On Friday afternoon, the government, in very few words, denied her plea. The denial meant almost inevitable deportation. The process is a blur to me now, but I remember that it was a very swift and direct denial.
The last conversation I had with this woman in the South Texas Family Residential Center was difficult because I had to explain that she would most likely be deported. The rules about gender, disclosure and discomfort flipped and this time I was afraid to speak to her, a Central American woman. I did a call up of the woman so I could speak to her. I waited for two hours and every time a woman entered the door into our area, my heart skipped a beat because I thought it was her. Every time I saw a little girl walk in, I thought it was the woman’s daughter and I felt tears come to my eyes. Every time I looked at the clock I thought she would not come. I was vulnerable.
The woman finally arrived with her young daughter; they smiled and waived from afar. I uncomfortably smiled back and asked to speak with the woman alone. I worked around the truth and gave hints at the terrible news. Her face became grim and with a shaky voice, she said “I’m being deported right?” I said, “I don’t want to say yes.” For the first time, I think I felt a scintilla of what the women in detention feel; the need to tell their stories and the truth, but it is withheld by the fear of being judged and punished.
The woman told me not to feel guilty because she knew I had done my best for her and that is all she could ever ask for. She said she would pray for me wherever she and her daughter went. She told me I was the most kind, considerate, and hardworking man she had ever met. She thanked me for taking the time to listen to her. She said I was the first man who had dedicated this much time to her in her life and she would never forget me. Remembering all of her words puts me in a fluster because the feeling is inexplicable. In the moment, tears flowed from her eyes and I could not help but to let my tears fall. My tears dropped as if in a rush; they were rushing to catch up with the number of tears that I had seen many other women shed that week. Now it was my turn to cry at the thought of what would happen to this woman when she and her daughter returned to their home country. I also cried from fear of the machine that insensitively sentences women to death when it returns the women “home.” I will never forget the woman; her image will be at the forefront of my battle against the machine.
I am humbled by my experience and I am in awe of the women’s resilience and willingness to share their life stories with me. I am forever grateful to the detained women at the South Texas Family Residential Center because they are the strongest women I know. They have inspired me to continue my advocacy to end family detention. I will return.
Special thanks to the CARA pro bono project, who allowed me to volunteer with their organization.