The Women and Children of Dilley, Part Two
- By Katherine Silver
Photo from the Cara Pro Bono Project
In order for an American woman and her children imprisoned at the South Texas Residential Center—run by the private, for-profit, publicly traded CoreCivic Company (previously named Corrections Corporation of America, and whose motto is “Better the Public Good”)—to be released, the Asylum Officer (AO) who interviews her must give her a positive result on her Credible Fear Interview (CFI).
Helping her to prepare for this interview is our primary job as volunteers at the DPBP. A positive outcome allows her and her children to be released into the United States, usually to a family member or friend who has agreed to sponsor them, and to live here while applying for asylum, a long and demanding process that can sometimes take years. In the meantime, she and her children will most likely be safe from the gang members/ abusers/ torturers/ rapists from whom they have fled, and, within a certain number of months after filing her asylum application, she can apply for work authorization. Her children can go to school.
Imprisoned women who do not receive the kind of legal advice and services that DPBP offers have approximately a 50-60 percent rate of positive results on their CFIs. According to the DPBP staff, 98 percent of the women who receive their services receive positive outcomes.
Some say that the legal assistance these women are receiving is suspect, unethical, that these women are being coached to lie, distort the truth, embellish. Such accusations seem to be based on the view that the legal advice these women are receiving is somehow different from the legal advice everybody in a country with due process has the legal right to receive. Or: that these women do not deserve the legal advice guaranteed to those who live in a society where there is rule of law and due process. Or: that their “raw” stories, usually of so many layers of trauma and violence and abuse and horror, are “true” only if: 1) they are told to the asylum officers while they are in detention and under a shit-pile of stresses and constraints and without the aid of legal counsel; 2) they are kept ignorant of the laws and regulations they are at the mercy of; and 3) they receive no encouragement, compassion, support, or understanding in order to be able to remember, let alone articulate, let alone tell to a total stranger who wields absolute power over their life, key aspects of their own life story, aspects they have often buried deep inside them in order to be able to continue to function and keep their children alive. (These women, by the way, unlike all residents in the United States, do not have the constitutional right to legal representation/counsel, hence the need for organizations like DPBP, and for thousands of volunteer hours.)
Imagine if the powerful were deemed unworthy of receiving legal counsel for their nominations, their tax avoidances and frauds, their scams, their corruptions, their stomps across the lives the others.
It cannot be asserted that none of these women ever lies or that no legal advisor ever suggests the memory of a spoken threat or a word said during a beating or while being gang raped, or that, through the lawyers’ attempts to shape and frame these stories events may become embellished or exaggerated or even in some cases wholly fabricated. But the DPBP lawyers and interpreters and assorted legal assistants, as well as all the lawyers I’ve worked with in the Bay Area at various stages of the asylum process, are not helping anybody invent stories or tell lies. They are helping to elicit stories, to dig them out through painful, persistent, and sometimes seemingly heartless questioning, to imbue, even if momentarily, enough agency into these women’s wounded hearts and souls and bodies for them to be able to name their abuse as abuse, to look at the horrors their lives have been subjected to, many of which they have had to normalize in order to survive. The counsel they receive is about how to tell their stories, not what to tell, how to build and carry the narrative, what to emphasize about their stories so that the officer will hear what he or she needs in order to decide that she has a credible fear to return to her country and that she has suffered serious persecution. That’s what lawyers do, for everybody. That’s what our laws and the carrying out of those laws depend on. Not fraud. Effective, purposeful storytelling. Some say that storytelling it is what makes us human, for whatever that is worth.
Here, more or less, is the talk the clients receive that will hopefully inform their testimony:
In order to qualify for asylum, you must have suffered from severe harm in the form of persecution in your country and have a well-founded, or credible, fear of suffering further persecution if you return to your country. Severe harm is not limited to physical violence; it can also include threats, sexual abuse, kidnapping, coercion, and even psychological abuse. In order to qualify for asylum, however, the persecution you have suffered must be on account of you being of a certain race, religion, or nationality, having certain political opinions, or belonging to what is called a protected social group, or PSG, due to characteristics you cannot or should not have to change and that are recognizable to others. Unfortunately, gender, femaleness, is not a protected social group, even though you would never have suffered the harms you have suffered if you were not a woman, and being a woman is easily recognizable to others. A protected social group can also be belonging to a particular family, or even just a family relationship. You have to be able to explain to the asylum officer why this happened to you and not somebody else.
In addition to these requirements, asylum law requires that the persecution you suffered and the harm you fear if you return was perpetuated by a government actor or agency or by members of a group that the government cannot or will not control. Finally, in order to determine likelihood of future persecution, you have to show that you would not be safe by relocating to a different place within your country.
How twisted does a mind have to be to actually believe—and act or speak on that belief—that any of these women would travel from Guatemala or Honduras or El Salvador to the border with their small children just because they feel like it, and that they then concoct yarns of trauma and fear and abuse in order to sneak through the gates of our fair city?
Katherine Silver is the former program director of the BANFF International Translation Centre. She has been translating Spanish and Latin American literature for over thirty years and has more than twenty-five books and countless other publications to her name.