#DilleyDispatches: From Hope to Heartbreak in Forty-Eight Hours

Ernie Collette is a Government Benefits and Immigration Attorney at MFY Legal Services

Feature Image Photo Credit: Claire R. Thomas

Wednesday, December 14, 2016.

I met with a woman and her young daughter who had a signed order in a request to extend their detention to avoid deportation from Dilley, Texas. Based on testimony that they offered, but was previously was unavailable, I was assigned the task to write a Request for Reconsideration that could cancel the detention and get a re-interview with an Asylum Officer.

Unlike preparing people for their credible fear interviews or preparing declarations for their appeal in front of an immigration court judge, a request for reconsideration is a final way in which we can get the Asylum Office to take a another look at their case. If there is additional testimony from the client or others who could attest to the violence or threats that the client received in her home country, there is a possibility that she or her child could get another chance to leave the facility and stay in the United States while their deportation case is pending.

In this case, this mother and her young daughter were on their second request for reconsideration. Throughout her detention, both grappled with the idea of telling their stories to strangers. It was not until both signed the stay of removal that the truth of why they fled to the United States became clear. However, at this stage, the chances of avoiding removal, although possible, were slim because the system in place does not allow for many second chances after the decision by the Immigration Court.

Credibility, as elsewhere in the legal system, is taken very seriously here. However, because there are so many people at the detention center, and all have to be processed within a relatively short period of time, it places a burden on mothers and children to build up the confidence to process and recount traumatic responses in a short period of time.

While, on the one hand, having families leave here quickly to possibly reunite with loved ones or simply get to somewhere better in the U.S. is one goal, overcoming the fear of telling the violence that you or your children experienced can sometimes take a lifetime and can be difficult to share to strangers. Personally there are times where I have wanted to forget painful moments in my life. To have to re-live those moments with strangers and talk about them while knowing that, if I did not within a finite period of time, I would be forced to return to the place where that pain occurred would be unbearable.

After reviewing the case record and introducing myself, I spent several hours slowly talking to the mother and her daughter in order to put together a declaration that may have a chance of preventing the both of them from flying out on a plane at 2 am on Friday. Over the course of the evening, I corroborated the information that they provided with what was in the case record. I believed them, and thought that their story was credible. However, at that moment I simply hoped that this new information would be enough and that we were not too late.

As I was leaving the facility on Wednesday, I was told that the declarations for the mother and daughter that I saw that afternoon would need to be reviewed so that staff could begin the Request for Reconsideration to the Asylum Office on Thursday. After dinner I was able to draft the declarations so that they would be ready for the parties to sign first thing in the morning.

As I walked into the facility on Thursday, the staff asked if I would be willing to draft the actual Request for Reconsideration showing that the new testimony would hopefully convince the Asylum Office that the client had a good technical claim for withholding her testimony and that with this testimony they would be able to establish either the credible fear necessary for an Asylum claim or a claim under the Convention Against Torture.

The Request for Reconsideration and the amended declarations needed to be filed to the Asylum Office before the office closed at 3:30 PM. Adrenaline flowed through my body after hearing that if we did not submit the request on time, the family would be put on a flight at 2 AM that morning without a chance of review. The whole day felt like a race against the clock.

After drafting the Request for Reconsideration, receiving comments and edits, double-checking the declarations with the clients, signing the declarations, and packaging the entire application together, we were just able to make the 3:30 PM deadline to give this family at least a shot of having their deportation stayed and receiving new Credible Fear interview.

Before they left the office, I told them that we did all that we could and that we hoped that this would be enough. I didn’t say goodbye because I wanted to believe that this would not be the last time that I would see them here in Dilley, Texas. They thanked me for my help and they felt regret that they didn’t share their full story until it got to this point. I told them that it’s understandable why they would not want to at first, and told them that I hoped to see them tomorrow.

Although I knew that it would be an uphill battle to have the Asylum Office reverse and return the case for a re-interview, nevertheless, as I was leaving the facility on Thursday, I felt that I helped to give this family a least a fighting chance to be able to tell their full story without fear. I had a hard time falling asleep that night. I hoped that what we did was enough for another chance to stay in the United States and to keep a family out harm’s way.

I went to the facility on Friday with the hopes that I could see the mother and daughter that our Request for Reconsideration was successful and to talk to them about another interview and next steps before I left Dilley. Instead I received the news that, despite our best efforts, the Asylum office denied our request for a re-interview and that the clients left the facility at 2 AM to go back to a country that they feared would kill them.

And just like that, they’re gone.

In the legal profession, I’ve faced my share of losses before. It is always a hard feeling, personally, professionally, or both, to accept that, despite your best efforts, those efforts were not enough. However, its gut-wrenching to know that as a result of the outcome, someone would be forced to leave a country that would keep them safe from the harms that they would likely face in their country of origin.

You begin to self-reflect and to continue to question the adversarial system, the short turn-around times that some mothers and children face between arrival and deportation, the fear and intimidation that cause clients to wait to share her full story until it is too late, and, more often than not, your efforts. Aside from receiving the negative determination, and understanding the consequences of that result, the most difficult part of the process is that I did not get an opportunity to say goodbye. I know that from what my clients said that they believed that I the best that I could. However, not being able to say goodbye in person strips from us the humanity of our efforts to treat others as human beings.

I did have a chance to see other clients that afternoon, including a client with whom I met on Tuesday and who had a change of heart and decided to fight her deportation. Earlier in the week, despite being a victim of violence, she said that her son was malnourished and crying constantly. She did not want to stay at the detention facility because she saw the effect it was having on her son, and as a mother, she felt correctly that her first duty was to protect her child.

This decision upset me, not because she made it in the best interests of her child, but because I felt that this country had failed her and her son. The reason why she came here was because she feared her country so much that she chose to leave her family behind to go on a journey that often relives the violence they are trying to escape. Once they arrive, instead of receiving a warm response, they are met with detention in cold cells or put in cells that are similar to dog kennels before coming to a detention facility like Dilley, Texas.

The mothers and children who make it to Dilley then get placed in a center that closely mirrors incarceration.  Some of my prior work involved investigating jails and prisons, and the system in place at Dilley is exactly the system used when we would interview clients. Calling up a client by having an officer get the person from the general population to the screening room, using call sheets to get medical attention, colds and other illnesses spreading within the population because of a lack of proper medical care, and countless other examples.

At the end of the day, when detention, like incarceration, is treated as a business, the people caught in the middle become part of the profit-margin and adequate care services are often the first item to be eliminated from the budget. Even if the only “crime” committed is that people are fleeing to save their lives, I am certain that some view deportation simply as a cost of doing business.

However, as truly disheartening as this is, it is the women and children who keep this place devoid of humanity. Even though we were unable to get any helpful information out of this second conversation, her willingness to be heard as a human being and develop a rapport with staff helped us to remain hopeful that we could help her in the future to prevent another negative reconsideration. Her child, who giggled every time I looked at him after he lifted his arm away from his eyes, demonstrated an innocence showing that while these facilities and their business model can create sentiments of dehumanization, the people within their walls continue show me their humanity through their innocent, playful actions.

When I arrived, I expected to learn about family detention and I hoped that I could help these families while I was here. While I feel that I failed in some parts, acknowledging that at times the system in place assists mightily in setting up that failure, I did feel that I was able to accomplish positive results and, more importantly, learn from these women. I will go back to my office, share what I have learned, and come back to help again until we can end family detention.

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