Inside the RAICES Fight for Asylees Detained in Texas

 by Zabdi Salazar

As I walked into my little office and sat down, Avigail, a young Guatemalan woman with big dark chestnut oval eyes tinged with tears sat across from me. She began explaining her deepest fears, and the tragic story that prompted her to endure a perilous journey to the U.S. She clutched her child in her arms as we spoke. Her identification card read a birth date in 1996: the same year I was born. As I summarized her testimony, I carefully noted the important details that were most relevant to what an asylum officer looks for in asylum claims. I emphasized the need to give important dates in her story and her efforts in fleeing her persecutor by relocating and contacting authorities. As I attentively listened, our conversation became emotionally intense as she described in detail the abusive and physical pain she suffered at the hands of her ex-partner. Her five year old daughter had also been victim of such abuse by her own father.

Most of the women that I helped during the summer with their credible fear interviews – the interviews people undertake at the U.S. border to assess whether they qualify for asylum – shared similar stories of abuse. They emphasized their treatment as an object and property at the hands of people who they thought would cherish them for life. In contrast to these somber stories that the RAICES staff heard almost every day throughout the summer, each morning began with a 90 minute scenic drive from their Kentucky street headquarters in San Antonio to Karnes city. By the time we arrived and pulled up on the spacious parking lot at about 10:00 a.m., the sun’s rays gleamed across the stark white clouds and blue sky.

The Karnes detention center, a prodigious white and blue rectangle building sat juxtaposed by its bucolic surroundings. To my right, cows roamed freely through the green pasture and small hills. However, upon entering the facility’s visitation area with no windows in sight, the white brick walls surrounded us and the sunlight suddenly vanished. The visitation room was sparsely decorated by a toy area with a rack of children’s books, some tables and chairs, and doors leading to small offices at the end of the room. The white fluorescent lights made the room seem smaller and the air more dense. After working more than five hours inside the building, many of us felt suffocated, and would often take small breaks going outside to embrace the fresh air and sunlight.

I did not really know what to expect during a summer volunteering for RAICES, the largest immigrant-serving nonprofit in Texas. However, my time interacting with dozens of migrants and the RAICES staff proved to be a powerful experience. Witnessing first-hand how an immigrant-serving organization handled changes in immigration policy— beginning with the zero tolerance policy, family separations, the Matter of A-B, and the relocation of migrant families— exemplified the dynamic pace of the job and the need for resilience of everyone involved.

Karnes Family Detention Center & Asylum Seekers

At RAICES, the staff prepares all interested volunteers with a four-hour pre-visit session. These sessions explain the core concepts of asylum and the paperwork that grants RAICES authority to serve migrant women at the detention center. The goal of volunteers and staff is to listen to the migrants’ testimonies and distinguish the components of their story that fall under asylum law. There are four major standards that an asylee candidate’s testimony must meet to begin the asylum process that are outlined in U.S. statutory law, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42)(A).

First, they must have a well-founded fear of past or future persecution. Second, they must have been unable to find relief through relocation in their country of origin. Third, their home government must have actively engaged in such persecution or withheld involvement, allowing the persecution to continue. Fourth, they must have been persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group (PSG).

RAICES would also go over the distinction between a refugee and asylee with volunteers. An asylee is a migrant physically present in an official port of entry with a well-founded fear of persecution. Such understanding of asylum stems from the 1951 UN Article 33, principle of non-refoulement that states that “no contracting state shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”  

The process to gain asylum in the United States. Infographic courtesy of Human Rights First.

In contrast, a refugee is a person who is located outside of the United States and is granted refugee status through a referral by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The referral must be relayed to the USCIS, which determines their eligibility for refugee status and resettlement to the U.S. on a case by case basis. An asylee does not go through this lengthy procedure compared to a refugee and only needs to claim a fear of return at an official port of entry to a border patrol agent to begin asylum proceedings. Still, the process for asylum once in the United States can also be lengthy and precarious.

According to RAICES staff, about 80 to 85 percent of their cases have been migrants fleeing gender-based violence. During my time at the detention center in June, I heard and summarized emotionally taxing stories of women fleeing all kinds of gender-based violence. Such stories involved domestic violence, abusive relationships, rape, beatings, extortions, death threats and oftentimes the deaths of close family members. The standards for asylum do not explicitly recognize gender-based violence.

However, in 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) set a precedential decision by affirming the Matter of A-R-C-G-, which held that victims of domestic violence could qualify for asylum. The Court grounded its decision on the particular social group standard of asylum. This standard holds that the persecution must be based on an immutable characteristic of a group that is defined with particularity and socially distinct in a society. The Court cited that the case met such criteria on the basis of gender, nationality, and relationship status, and was particularly defined as “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship.”

Despite such existing legal precedent, in June 2018, the U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, overruled the Matter of A-R-C-G- after reviewing a similar case, the Matter of A-B-. The attorney general argued that “the decision was wrongly decided and should not have been issued as a precedential decision.” On the day the decision was released, its immediate effects followed, most clearly targeting the women and children that RAICES served.

Implications of the Matter of A-B-

RAICES attorneys, shocked by the decision and the new legal standard, quickly began assessing the implications of the Matter of A-B-, and how it affected female migrants. Ryan Clough, staff attorney and immigrant justice corps fellow, addressed how he believed that the attorney general’s decision was quite narrow in scope and that by focusing on other related BIA case law, some women fleeing violence could still qualify for asylum. For example, many of the women’s claims can be framed not just under the higher standards of the particular social group criteria, but also on discrimination against race or a political opinion.

Similarly, Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention services at RAICES, described how despite their staff’s horrified initial reaction, it is mainly in the hands of attorneys to work within the higher standards of asylum set by the Matter of A-B-. However, Govindaiah does find that the troubling aspect of the decision is how it will impact individuals without attorneys. He addresses that because of the Matter of A-B-, it is now more difficult for people to use the right words necessary for their case and to meet the higher bar for gender-based asylum claims. “How you frame it or the words you use to describe the social group…it is so hard for lawyers, and especially hard for someone who doesn’t have a lawyer who is applying for asylum on their own, because it is very legal and technical,” he said.

The government’s lack of transparency and little explanation of U.S. asylum law further places asylees at a disadvantage in the process. However, without any additional support or explanation from attorneys or volunteers, many migrant women find themselves in conflicting situations. For example, Clough noted that many migrant women become frustrated with the process and think that they are denied asylum because the asylum officer did not believe their testimony. However, Clough notes that the bigger problem is that the women do not have an adequate understanding of asylum law, which is critical to frame their testimony according to the high standard of asylum.

Another potential danger is the role of asylum officers in interpreting the Matter of A-B-. Clough said that there could be danger in an asylum officer reading the decision in a literal way with full controlling weight and hurt established asylum law. At the same time, they could approach the holding in a narrow way, as their team does. Govindaiah stated that RAICES has encountered this issue of different interpretations in court. He said that for some of their own domestic violence cases, similar to the Matter of A-R-C-G, once the Matter of A-B- came out, ICE began telling them that domestic violence is no longer a viable asylum claim.

“But that’s not what Matter of A-B- says. Matter of A-B- says it might still be viable, but you now have to prove XYZ in addition to what you had to prove before,” Govindaiah said. Further, in the days following the decision, the staff hoped that it would still take some time for asylum officers to implement the decision. However, such hope quickly vanished as the decision visibly affected credible fear interview (CFI) results, in which an asylum officer hears the testimonies of migrants to assess if they have a viable asylum claim.

Credible Fear Interviews and the Matter of A-B-

I observed how the RAICES team reassessed their approach to the CFI preparations after the justice department’s decision. The emotional toll on the team was evident. Casey Miller, legal assistant for RAICES, shared her thoughts on the matter. “On that day, I felt paralyzed. There was really nothing we could do. We were informing women that we thought they should not do their CFI and ask for more time, because at that point we had no idea what we’re going to do. We barely read the decision, and we did not know how we were going to prepare women since domestic violence is our number one claim. So that day was the worst that I have worked because it was hectic, and we had no idea what we were doing,” she said.

The decision also affected the relationship of the staff and the women. Miller noted how the women were not listening to their advice of delaying their interview. She speculated that GEO or ICE were telling the women not to delay or else they would be penalized. In light of such conflicting information, the trust that the staff had cultivated over time with the women suddenly became strained and uneasy. “The woman stopped trusting us, they didn’t know who to trust and that was probably the worst day I ever worked in the detention center,” Miller said.

Just a few days after the decision, when I was also present and helping migrants with their CFIs, the RAICES attorneys informed us that we had six negative credible fear interview (NCFI) results in a single day. Having a NCFI means that they do not have a viable asylum claim and could either fight their case with an attorney or accept their deportation order. After asking whether that was abnormal, Clough informed me that at Karnes, they usually only had 0-1 NCFI results per day. Maria Osornio, staff attorney for RAICES, corroborated these facts and related the increase in NCFIs to the Matter of A-B-. “There has been a significant increase in NCFIs since Matter of A-B-; we would usually have about five (NCFIs) per month and right now we’re handling about 13 (NCFIs). This change is absolutely related to the Matter of A-B-, a handful of the negatives we have received are domestic and gang violence related,” she said.

The decision also affected migrants detained in the South Texas family residential center in Dilley, TX. Katy Murdza, advocacy coordinator for the Dilley pro bono project (informally known as CARA,) informed me on July 10th that they have also seen an increase of NCFIs at the Dilley detention center. “We had to call everyone else back in and re-assess after that decision. We have seen a change. We have seen an increase in negative decisions. We had 31 negative decisions in the first five months of this year and we have already had 29 in the past month, since the Matter of A-B-,” she said.

According to the 2011 Council of Europe convention on violence against women, gender-based violence is defined as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately.” Regarding the ideological debate of whether gender-based violence is real and its lack of recognition in the Matter of A-B-, Miller shared a story with me that had brought her to tears, yet manifested the unique ways women experience violence. While at the Dilley detention center, Miller had interviewed a mother and daughter. The father was a drug dealer and part of a gang and he owed money to someone. He couldn’t pay the man, so he gave his 13 year old daughter to rape in their house. The daughter was screaming for her mother and the father started to beat the mother as the man raped their daughter. It had happened on more than one occasion.

“And what would have it been like if he had a son? Very different. These are real things that our country cannot empathize with…It is hard to say that there is no gender relation, because if this daughter had been a son, this wouldn’t have happened. Women are just not treated equally in these countries,” she said. Miller explained that the attorney general’s decision in the Matter or A-B- ignores these real stories of women seeking to escape countries where their dignity is trivialized.

Helping Hands & Advocacy

Media attention has driven an increase in volunteers and pro-bono lawyers at RAICES and the Dilley pro bono project. RAICES recently raised $20 million dollars through a viral Facebook campaign and plans to expand its staff and attorneys. For the Dilley pro bono project, Murzda informed me that they currently have seven staff members, yet they have become booked with volunteers for the rest of the year. The amount of volunteers helping at Dilley has doubled from about 15 people to 30 people. During my time with RAICES, I also met many lawyers of all backgrounds and law students from Washington, D.C., California, Massachusetts, and Virginia. The most crucial aspects of the work that RAICES staff and volunteers undertake is pragmatic, yet also humanistic and empathetic.

Volunteers for RAICES are briefed at their offices in San Antonio. Photo courtesy of RAICES.

I asked Dr. Elvia Arriola, a Latina feminist and critical legal theorist with publications on gender violence and for-profit detention centers, what she thought was most important in her approach with helping migrants with their CFIs. “Treating them with respect, making it possible for them to access their hurt and fear… They are all so young. They are almost all hard working, struggling women. They all have courage,” she said. Dr. Arriola also elaborated on the circumstances of these women and the words of courage she passed on.

“It is heartbreaking to see how so many are deeply rooted in culture of poverty and a societal attitude that women’s and girls’ lives are not important and don’t deserve protection. I like being able to pass on even just a bit of encouragement for them to value their efforts and to see themselves as survivors and not victims,” she said.

Ending Family Detention

Ending family detention is RAICES’ goal. There are currently three family detention centers across the nation. Karnes and Dilley are both in Texas, just a few hours from San Antonio, and the other center is in Pennsylvania. Nate Roter, the post-release case manager of RAICES, shared his thoughts on the U.S. detention system. “Detention of Central American asylum seekers in the U.S. is the most unnecessary waste of money I can think of. For the first three quarters of 2017, 99.46 percent of CARA clients in Dilley were released with a positive credible fear finding. This is a screening process that is finding nearly everyone has an asylum case, and we should not be detaining people,” he said. Further, a DHS report highlights that detention is not necessary for mothers and children, since they do not pose a significant threat to society and that detention is not in the best interests of children. Despite these facts, U.S. detention centers are now holding around 400,000 immigrants each year.

Roter also noted the ties between for-profit prison companies and congress. “When I asked Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to president Obama from 2009-2017, she confirmed to me that the Obama administration expanded its detention apparatus to score political points in D.C. while trying to push debate on the DREAM Act,” Roter stated. Considering the millions of dollars made by private prison companies and even the potential political gains by members of Congress, holding immigrants in detention centers is a lucrative business. Such reality makes it harder for organizations like RAICES to push for the end of family detention. Other immigration activist organizations, such as Grassroots Leadership based in Austin TX, are likewise determined to end private detention centers, yet its resources are much more devoted to the goal of ending all for-profit private prisons.

At a monthly prayer vigil at the Richmond, California detention facility, activists demonstrated against family detention. Photo courtesy of Peg Hunter.

Dr. Arriola’s work on this topic is extensive and focuses on what she calls “crimmigration,” the criminalization of immigrants. Dr.Arriola has studied how for profit prisons like GEO Group Inc. (GEO) and Core Civic (CCA) perpetuate discrimination against immigrants. “Their staff are horribly prepared to understand that asylum seekers, especially women fleeing domestic violence, should not be treated as presumed criminals… the system has been ethically and morally warped by not training the staff that operate the detention centers with basic constitutional law/civil rights/human rights principles,” she said. As a result, Dr. Arriola highlights how the detention system re-traumatizes migrants, many who are women of color from Central American countries fleeing systemic economic deprivation and corrupt or impotent governments. “[Our detention system] devalues their pleas and therefore denies human dignity… And of course it perpetuates the gross ideas that it is okay, in this country, to treat all people of color, and poor people, as less than us,” she said.

Murzda also noted the direct consequences detention has had on children. She described how the children have been through unimaginable situations in their country while also going through a difficult and exhausting journey. Murzda noted how the kids become re-traumatized in detained situations. Such added trauma and stress in detention has led many kids to revert back to difficult behaviors, such a bedwetting, attachment to parents, fighting, and increased illnesses. Another significant concern is the lack of medical attention for children in detention. “Many of the kids don’t get the medical care they need. Many have to wait until they are released to visit the doctor. The nearest hospital is an hour and fifteen minutes away. Sometimes, after not being provided medical care, many of these children have to be rushed to the doctor by ambulance or helicopter,” she said.

Murzda reiterated the desperation of migrants, emphasizing the toll it has on children within just a few weeks. “We want to prevent family detention and any expansion of detention or longer time periods in detention because we see parents becoming extremely desperate, kids becoming depressed, within just 3 weeks. So imagine if someone is here for several months,” she said. Murzda highlighted her concerns that although the Trump administration has been reuniting families, it is pursuing policies to undermine the Flores settlement by extending the time minors are held in detention with their parents. The Flores agreement placed restrictions on the government that children must be released without unnecessary delay, and that they cannot be detained for more than 20 days.

Mistreatment of Asylees at the Border

Even when considering the recent ordeal of family separations and detention, there are also many problems with the treatment of asylum seekers at the border. During my conversations with migrant women, many shared testimonies of discrimination and even temporary separation of family members while they waited at the hielera and perrera (overnight custody centers for detained migrants at the border). Although sons or daughters would eventually be reunited in detention with their parents, many migrants expressed that they felt afraid and deeply concerned. Some never saw their children until detention, others said they only had an hour of visiting time with them through a window.

The lack of transparency at the border makes it difficult to hold accountable the extensive authority of street-level bureaucrats, namely border patrol agents. Roter informed me that RAICES has been concerned for years about separations in the hielera and perrera, and that there is long term litigation being built. The Human Rights Watch recently published in February an investigation on the abusive conditions of migrants in holding centers at the border. The experiences told by women on the Human Rights Watch report continue to be re-stated by women that I met in detention, especially in regards to being denied entry and a denial of feminine hygiene products, showering, baby formula, and toilet privacy.

The authority of border patrol agents screening asylees is fraught with many problems that pose challenges to asylees. In my conversations with migrants, many are not aware of the UN principle of non-refoulement. Although some migrants try to present themselves at an official port of entry and claim a fear of return, many report long and indefinite waiting lines, and even border patrol staff telling them to return back to their country. Thus, many choose to enter without inspection and turn themselves in to border patrol agents. However, these migrants have automatic removal proceedings and must apply for asylum defensively, raising the burden on the asylee to prove their claim of well-founded persecution. The zero tolerance policy could also have a detrimental impact for asylum seekers, raising the stakes higher for asylees who enter illegally, believing it is their only way to begin asylum proceedings. Turning away migrants claiming fear of return at the border is a violation of the UN principle of non-refoulement.

Reunited Fathers and Sons at Karnes

Drastic changes in family detention near the end of the summer, on top of the zero tolerance policy and the Matter of A-B-, has also been an emotionally turbulent ordeal for migrants and the RAICES staff. In July, unexpectedly, GEO moved all of the mothers from Karnes to the Dilley detention center. Men with young sons began to be housed in Karnes without any explicit notice to the RAICES team. Diana Mercado, a RAICES family detention intern, shared her concerns about the clandestine situation and the lack of transparency. “While at Karnes, I came to realize rumors were usually the only way we would find out changes brought on by GEO or ICE. My fear of what was happening to the women and children originally at Karnes consumed me for some time. The way they were taken in the middle of night and loaded onto buses with hardly any notice felt shady at best,” she said.

Jamie Turcios-Villalta, a RAICES intern for the summer, also shared her thoughts about the migrant’s perspective and how the RAICES staff were treated by a GEO guard. “Woken up in the early morning, forced to sign documents in a foreign language, and put on a bus heading to an unknown destination. Deportation? Release? These were the thoughts of mothers being removed from Karnes Detention Center in early July. ‘There isn’t anyone to see today,’ a GEO guard yelled as Diana, Ryan, and I approached the Karnes lobby. We sat for hours trying to figure out what was happening. RAICES was in limbo just like these immigrant families were,” she said.

Working with men at the detention center has also shifted perspectives and approaches of the staff in their services. Many of the men were at different stages of the asylum process, some of them having already been detained for months. Turcios-Villalta noted a few of the surprising new elements of her work, as she began filing deportation requests for many of the fathers. “Some men have been held since April, I could tell by the desperation in their eyes. There was one day where I helped complete over 25 papelitos requesting their deportation… For them, being detained for several months meant leaving their families in their home country with nothing. They never anticipated being held for so long. No money was flowing back to their families, what were they supposed to do?,” she said. Turcios-Villalta further addressed the distinct frustration and trauma that migrant men faced in comparison to women. “These fathers are suffering from PTSD and are still in the fight or flight mode,” she said.

Govindaiah addressed how most of the claims of men who have continued their asylum proceedings have mainly been based on religion and political opinion grounds and not gender-violence claims. He also explained that men experience trauma but process it in different ways, which is portrayed differently in their stories. Further, there are differences in how men frame their persecution, which could potentially harm their asylum claim, such as minimizing their fear or embellishing their response to danger. Still, Govindaiah associates these differences with cultural norms and men’s perception of how society sees them; not wanting to appear weak or feminine. Still, with legal help, the staff has been able to work with them to get the truth of their stories and continue with their asylum claims.

A few other significant disturbing events occurred in August at Karnes. RAICES reported how hundreds of fathers at Karnes went on a hunger strike due to the delay of their cases and their terrible treatment by guards. “This situation at Karnes today is the worst I’ve seen in my twelve years of practicing law,” Govindaiah said. Even more concerning is that in mid-August, in response to a “disturbance” that involved about 40 men, 16 of them were taken to the Pearsall detention facility while their children stayed in school. Although they were returned the following evening, Miller noted the psychological damage faced by the children and fathers.

In an interview with Democracy Now, Govindaiah noted how the staff on that day had not seen the fathers involved in any disturbance. It clearly sounds like this is retaliation against nonviolent, lawful protest. And whatever ICE is saying to justify this seems completely, completely untrue,” he said. RAICES also published the testimony of a young boy at Karnes, whose father was one of the 16 men taken to Pearsall. His audio message, addressed to President Trump, pleads for release and freedom for himself, his little brother, and his father. Hundreds of reunified fathers and children continue waiting at Karnes and the future of their cases remain uncertain.

Resilience and Hope

A few acts of kindness, a listening ear, can go very far with migrants who have been through so much during detention. While helping RAICES at the Greyhound bus station by relaying information to migrant’s about their next steps in the asylum process, I witnessed many acts of kindness, even by strangers. On a particular evening I approached Gladys, a migrant from Honduras who waited with her 12-year-old daughter at the bus station after being released from detention with a positive CFI. She was hesitant about speaking with me at first, as she wanted to make sure I was not affiliated with immigrant officials. Still, once a connection sparked, we spoke freely to each other. Perhaps guided by a similar worldview and faith, we conversed naturally. She spoke to me about her journey, sharing her story, tearing up occasionally. She explained how while in detention, it was the first time ever she had to tell someone her agony and pain in life, that pain that lead her to leave her home country and seek asylum.

Migrants in Texas detention centers often have credible claims to asylum, but may not know the legal intricacies of U.S. asylum law to make their claim. Photo courtesy of RAICES.

While we spoke at the food area of the bus station, a man decided to buy all of the migrant women, about ten of them, freshly made-to-order hamburgers and fries for dinner. Gladys told me that she had no money at all. They had already eaten the lunch food donated to them by the Interfaith World Coalition. She did not think both her and her daughter would eat dinner. She began tearing up once again, saying how she is so grateful to God for sending people her way. I also admired how the migrant women looked after each other as one of them approached us, bringing the food to Gladys, at our table where we were conversing. I only saw at a distance the face of the man who paid for the dinner of all the women as he left quickly after paying.

I do not know if I will ever see Gladys again, nor the fates of all the migrant families I met in detention. Still, the burden on them is much higher now. According to the attorney general’s remarks in Falls Church, Virginia, only 20% of asylum cases were affirmed by immigration judges in the past five years, despite about 85% of positive CFI results. Still, others do not even pass their CFI and are deported. Or like some of the men at Karnes, after months of detainment and traumatizing events, they would rather face again the suffering that led them to seek haven. Others are forced to file deportation orders right after reunification. I just hope people will still continue be out there, waiting to lend a hand and spread hope. This past summer, RAICES and so many volunteers have lent a hand. Yet, there is still so much work to be done. Hope and resilience continues to be the driving force behind it all.

Zabdi Salazar is a senior at Trinity University studying Political Science and Business.  Zabdi has also reported on DACA, how the Syrian refugee crisis impacts San Antonio, and other subjects for The Contemporary. She is The Contemporary’s Director of Business Operations.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The cover photo above was taken by Edgard Garrido of Reuters in April of migrants applying for asylum from Tijuana, Mexico.

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