The Women and Children of Dilley, Part One
- By Katherine Silver
Photo from CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project
Since the 2016 election, several of my local translator colleagues and I have been volunteering with Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, California, as legal interpreters. I have worked with asylum seekers to help them fill out forms (asylum application, work authorization, change of status, etc.), interpreted during psychological evaluations, and am currently interpreting for two pro bono lawyers as we prepare an asylum case for one Guatemalan Kanjobal woman and her two young children. We have been working on the case since August and the hearing is this week. I have been spending long hours helping to prepare her for her examination and cross examination before the judge.
I volunteered to go to Dilley, Texas, thereby upping my engagement, when children were being ripped out of their parents’ arms at the border. Many in the group last week did the same.
The Dilley Project staff thought it important to mention to us, the volunteers, that the detention center in Dilley, the largest immigration detention center in the United States, opened in 2014. The treatment these women receive and the realities they face have not changed much since then. It is true that Sessions and Co. have tweaked the regulations, sent out directives, and their intention has consistently been to limit the grounds for asylum, to raise the bar, and to exclude certain groups of asylum seekers and certain kinds of persecution—such as, most importantly, domestic violence. Building a case becomes harder, but not impossible. The staff and the volunteers continue to do their jobs, dealing with the regulations that exist today, then tomorrow, then the next day.
The largest immigrant detention center in the United States houses women and children, women with children, children with their mothers.
I want to put that in bold and italics and cover it with exclamation points. Are the words themselves enough?
Before going to Dilley I had to request authorization to use a laptop computer within the facility. By signing it, I acknowledged and certified that: “I will not use the device to record, broadcast, Skype, or transmit any video images or audio sounds.” As far as I know, I have not signed anything that prevents me from using my senses and my memory and my limited ability to translate the ensuing thoughts, feelings, and perceptions into the written word.
I also had to sign a Volunteer Agreement with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. In bold, under item #2, it says that “Volunteers with journalism experience may not publish pieces about their time in Dilley or indicate that they were a Dilley volunteer.” I am not a journalist. I am also not a lawyer. Forgive any inaccuracies herein.
Most of the detained women of Dilley, Texas, the women in Dilley, Texas, these particular women, are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, a region sometimes referred to as the Northern Triangle. These countries are located in Central America, which is one of three, or two—depending on how you divide up the hemisphere—American continents. Together these continents make up The Americas, and they comprise most of the land in the Western Hemisphere.
These women, then, are Americans, as much as any and all of us are Americans, in many cases arguably more so, for many of their ancestors were here, in The Americas, thousands of years before Europeans even knew these lands existed.
If we continue to claim the name “America” for this piece of the Western Hemisphere on what could be called the continent of North America, and “Americans” for those with citizenship in the United States, then we are also denying the connections among us. The intimate connections of cause and effect, colonialism and imperialism, economic and military power, cultural destruction and intrusion. Haves and have-nots. The massive, continuous, and devastating interference by the United States (not America) in the political and economic and military development of The Americas. A book could be written. Many have been. But in the meantime, in casual conversation or lazy mimicry of the powers that be, we call ourselves Americans and thereby deny the inhabitants of the rest of The Americas their belonging to the land that they inhabit. Misnaming is lying and it is violent because it displaces, because it makes others invisible.
The women and children of Dilley, Texas, are not of Dilley, Texas. They are in Dilley, Texas. Or: they are of Dilley, Texas, just as they are of America. As they are of us and we are of them.
One occupational hazard of being a translator and an interpreter is that we consider what words connote as much as what they denote. We also consider their associative sway, the heft they bring with them from all the other contexts in which they have been deployed. These women and children are imprisoned, as well as detained. The word imprisoned is harder to look away from, hence more accurate.
Apart from the imprisoned American women and children we are serving, there are 38 American families in Dilley who have been reunited after being “separated” for up to six months. These women are in a complicated legal trap, a Kafkaesque holding pattern, which has meant for them a vastly extended period of imprisonment, arguably illegal though somehow justified by overlapping directives, regulations, and pending lawsuits.
Just to be clear, in case it isn’t already: Children were not separated from their parents at the border. The politicians who said that they did not have a policy of separating children from their parents at the border were, in some sense of the word truth, telling the truth. The pediatrician working with us last week to offer psychological and medical evaluations of the women and children was, as she said, separated from her young children for the week. They talked to each other and saw each other over their devices every day. She knew where they were. She knew they were safe. They knew where she was, that she was working. They all knew when they would see each other again and were confident that this meeting would depend on them, the mother and her children. If language were used more carefully to describe reality and make distinctions, would we, the privileged, have less choice about what we cared about? Or does sloppy, opportunistic, euphemistic language allow us to more easily turn away, choose more freely and with impunity what we allow to occupy our minds and our hearts?
It is a lie to say that children were separated from their parents at the border.
Our government, the government of the United States, had a policy of kidnapping children at the border, and so far, nobody has been held in the least bit accountable for this crime, yes, against humanity.
Our government kidnapped children from their parents or adult guardians, and they did this at a moment when those parents were at their most weak and vulnerable, at the very moment those parents were arriving in the United States to ask for help to keep those children safe. And this kidnapping was ordered by the elected officials of what passes for a democracy, our what-passes-for-a-democracy, and in the name of keeping us—yes, you and I and our children—safe.
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.