#DilleyDispatches: Finding Humanity

By Claire R. Thomas an attorney with the Safe Passage Project and teaches at New York Law School. She and a volunteer team of paralegals, lawyers and social workers have gone to Dilley Texas to provide pro bono representation for women and children in detention. They are sharing their experiences while there with Law@theMargins in a series called #DilleyDispatches

Day 4

Another early morning! Most mornings this week, there has been heavy fog. This morning was clearer. By 7:15 AM, still no sign of Ernie, I went to knock on his door to make sure he was up [his room is on the end of the trailer]. As I walked, I realized what Ernie was telling me was true, that his room was in fact, directly across from the yard of the Texas state prison.

Immigration Court

We were early to Baby Jail this morning. Marilyn and I headed to the Immigration Court for the Immigration Judge (IJ) review of the credible fear interview for our client from yesterday. It was tough, and the IJ’s questions were difficult (in terms of intensity) for the client was emotional. She reached out for my hand under the table and squeezed it throughout the rest of the hearing. The IJ vacated, meaning that client will be released. So happy for her and for her daughter.

We then stayed for the next case, which was a master calendar hearing for a woman who should have been released last week, but was still in the detention facility. The IJ was upset that the woman was in the facility and called the ICE counsel in to explain what was going on. The ICE counsel stated that the woman would be contacted by ERO (ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations) to get her release papers underway. Fingers crossed again.

Photo Credit: Claire R. Thomas Trailers serve as venues for the Immigration Proceedings

The little Afghan-Brazilian Baby at the Asylum Office

Bree, the managing attorney here at CARA, pulled me into a CFI prep for the Afghan woman and then asked me to accompany her at her interview before the asylum officer. I recently returned from Iran, know about 3 words of Farsi, which is very similar to Dari, the language that this woman speaks (she speaks quite a bit of Farsi also). Was able to say hello. Client is a 21-year-old young woman with a 5-month-old baby, whom she gave birth to in Brazil en route to the United States. This baby is beautiful, and got a bit fussy because he’s 5 months old. While prepping client for her interview with a Dari-speaking phone interpreter, we needed someone to step in and help with the baby so that I could actually write and client could concentrate. Enter Nora, here also from NYC, who loves babies. We put the baby in a blanket, Nora took one end and client took the other, and rocked the baby to sleep in his little hammock à la Little House on the Prairie.

And then we headed to the Asylum Trailer. As a non-resident or employee of this facility, I needed a staff escort all 50 feet to the trailer. I remember it from when we were here in February. Actually, a lot of the staff here is the same. There were blinking Christmas lights all over, and the doors were encased in Christmas wrapping paper. The guards sat me down in a plastic chair, marked “for attorneys,” directly in front of a plug-in Christmas tree on top of the container for papers to be shredded. I decided to talk to introduce myself to the asylum officers who were around while I waited.

Most of the asylum officers are on detail from Houston and LA Asylum Offices. One man I spoke with on detail from LA told me that he had signed up for 2 months, but then decided to sign on for a year. I asked him what he thought about being here and this process. He told me there were “ups and downs.” He said that it was tough to hear stories every day, and that sometimes it gets repetitive, but that all in all he enjoys his work.

The Asylum Officer (AO) who would be conducting my Afghan client’s interview introduced herself and was very gracious. She actually had a boxed lunch brought to the client, because she had missed lunch to attend the interview. The AO and I discussed the case and what the client would be questioned on before, and then the myriad questions that the AO was required to ask my client was from Afghanistan. I asked her if she (AO) was on detail from an Asylum Office, and she explained that he Houston Asylum Office actually stationed her here in Dilley. She said she had just returned from the Middle East, where she had been on detail in Baghdad. I told her I had just gotten back from Iran. She said that even though Afghanistan isn’t the Middle East, she gets assigned to any and all cases of people from anywhere in the region.

We started the credible fear interview with a Dari interpreter by phone. Adorable baby was asleep in the childcare facility. AO started with the usual questions, including asking client if she had any medical conditions. Client said she had a problem with her leg from the journey. AO asked her to tell her more. Client states that she was bitten by “a creature” somewhere in Central America and rolls up the leg of her pants to show what appears to be an infected wound that is clearly in need of medical attention. Client says that it itches and is sometimes painful. AO encourages her to have medical personnel look at it. [I informed CARA team to follow up on this].

Interview went well. It was long, due to the use of the interpreter and translating and re-translating concepts that didn’t make sense. In short, client’s husband’s family ran a co-educational group of schools in Afghanistan. As you might imagine, this didn’t go over so well with the Taliban. Death threats came in, and became increasingly more severe. When she was 8 months pregnant, client and husband fled from Afghanistan to India, then to Ecuador, then to Brazil where she gave birth to her son, then back to Ecuador with the baby, then to Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and finally the United States. They were arrested by immigration officials in Honduras and Mexico. I’m sure that there are parts of this journey that did not come out clearly, and I can’t even imagine what horrors they were subjected to along the way. And remember, she’s carrying a newborn baby.

Client was physically separated from her husband, who is detained in a facility for men in Port Isabel, Texas. She’s really upset to be away from him, and told the AO how difficult it was for her to be very young, with a tiny baby, and to be separated from her husband. AO printed out a photo of her husband from the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) system and gave it to client. She began crying. She kept the photo of her husband in front of her for the remainder of the interview.

AO apologized profusely and told client she would have to ask the terrorism-related questions, to her, and then to the baby. And as she started to ask the questions about the baby’s material support for terrorism, we all realized that this child, who is 5 months old, is a dual national of Brazil and Afghanistan and has actually never stepped foot in Afghanistan.

Client brought out the photo of her husband and held it in front of her baby, pointed at it, and said, in Dari, what translates to “there’s daddy.”  The baby grabbed at the photo and smiled and gurgled.

I was sitting to the left of this little family, watching this young mother and beautiful baby so full of hope, longing to be reunited with her husband, with tears rolling down her cheeks, clutch the photo. What must she be thinking, what must the baby be thinking. With Christmas decorations on the walls of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. A Muslim Holy Family in Dilley. Happy Holidays from Baby Jail.

At the end of the interview, as the AO, client, interpreter, and I all exchanged pleasantries, client thanked the AO for her time, told her that it was very nice to have met her, and then thanked her for “treating her like a human.” We all teared up.

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