Search the Site

The Women and Children of Dilley, Part Five

Drawing by Marcela Castro,
from the video Drawings by Themselves: Portraits of America

Read Part Four here.

One Last Story

Here’s a bipartisan idea: Declare MS-13 an international terrorist organization. It is. They could. Problem: they’d have to believe the women…and give them asylum. Maybe even stop punishing them in the iceboxes and the dog kennels. Problem: it never works out well when the U.S. intervenes with the use of force in another country. Problem: other gangs will fill the power vacuum unless government institutions are strengthened and shorn of corruption.

Another idea: Write down all the names of all the men who have abused, raped, beaten, kicked, insulted, imprisoned, kidnapped these women. Hand those names over to the Border Patrol to make sure they cannot get in and find those women and children. Or: form a vigilante squad of interpreters and lawyers with superpowers and go to each and every place these women mention, from tiny villages in the Guatemalan highlands to the major cities and small towns of Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala and Mexico, and find every single one of these men with their masks and their tattoos and their guns and terrorize them into never terrorizing another woman or young boy or young girl. Let them know we have our eyes on them. That we, in our magical garments that shield our identity and make us impervious to their gunfire, will not let them continue to prey on the weak and the vulnerable. I can see them cringing, slinking away, and my anger is nourished and grows. Or: physically castrate all of them. Or (as suggested by one of the interpreters in the group, on Thursday night): assassinate them. By Thursday, we were all angry, among other things.

Simone Weil says that “Contradiction experienced to the very depths of the being tears us heart and soul: it is the cross.” The issue of immigration is riddled with contradictions, and it tears us heart and soul, in part because it is being used brazenly to stir up the worst in many of us. There is a crisis, but it is a crisis for our fellow Americans south of the border and of our own lack of wisdom and compassion.

Another thought about individual stories: they are always one step removed from the listener’s experience, fetishized, aestheticized in the imagination of the listener, mounted on top of the circumstances in which they are told. As I have said, doubts sometimes arise as to the veracity of what is being told, which become moments of shame for the doubter when she, I, in this case, think about who and what I am doubting. There can even be moments when the listener asks if this woman really is deserving of asylum, isn’t she really an economic refugee, after all she didn’t suffer the horrors M suffered, and such thoughts, even if so quickly fleeting they cannot be named, evoke even deeper shame, horror at how quickly we can begin to think like the regulators and the regulations, how quickly the unthinkable has been thought: that this woman isn’t deserving, that she has not suffered the kind of harm that qualifies her for asylum, the threat to her is not personal enough, it is not enough for her to want her children to be a safe and eat well…

What remains with me, haunts me, echoes inside me whenever there is a slice in my life of quietude and silence, are the actual moments that I shared with these women, whether in the big, noisy chaotic room, where it was difficult to hear and I often and reluctantly had to ask them to repeat when they said, or removed from the cacophony in one of the smaller rooms. The moments we live in their presence, los momentos que presenciamos. The face that transforms in a way as yet to be described when something is released, revealed, when there is a lessening of the stress, just enough to become aware of just how much there is.

One last story, or part of a story, the story of a woman who has remained with me more constantly and strongly than all the others. Is it because she is slightly more urban, more “Western,” more groomed than many of the others, hence the connection with her is more readily established? Is it because I was able to more quickly feel the communality that eludes me for longer when speaking to a rural, indigenous woman, someone whose affect is unfamiliar, whose experience is more difficult to translate into terms I can understand? As if she, J.A., her features and her gestures, are written in a script I can read, an alphabet I know, lines and curves I can recognize even if I could not then and still cannot totally decipher the meaning of what is written. J.A. is from El Salvador. Her four-year-old daughter is on her lap. At first, I think, if I think about it at all, she’s simply sleeping, taking an afternoon nap. We begin to go through the steps of prepping J.A for her interview. Her answers are a bit clipped, there is an edge to her voice, her face is set, she seems even a bit resentful, defensive. She tells her story quite clearly, about the immediate threat that led to her flight, then adds as if anecdotally that she was raped at fifteen, then again at twenty-five. She is slightly older than many of the other women, though I don’t bother to look at her birth date. At a certain point I realize that her daughter is not only sleeping but is sweating and totally listless, and I manage to activate a tiny part of my imagination, sense how hard it must be for her to focus on our questions and her answers, take a rough measure of the effort she must be making, and I turn to the lawyer and suggest that we stop the session, let her go and put the child in bed, maybe even try to see the doctor again. Her interview isn’t for another two days, so there is time to prep her tomorrow. She leaves and returns the next day. We ask another lawyer to help us, because we know we haven’t checked all the boxes. He is an immigration attorney and has more experience, a different way of asking questions, of framing the conversation. At first her daughter seems a bit better, she is sitting on her own chair. Soon, however, she crawls onto her mother’s lap. By the time we have almost concluded the session, but before the lawyer has summed up her case as a way of cueing her how to frame her own testimony, before he has explained clearly and succinctly the aspects she should stress that are essential for her to be released from prison, her daughter is again draped over her lap, damp with sweat and listless. I interrupt the discussion of her case and ask her if she has gone back to the doctor. She says she did but he was dismissive and gave her more of the same medicine he had given her previously for the vomiting, even though now she has diarrhea and fever and a sore throat. The lawyer begins to give his advice by saying that he thinks she has a very strong case. I look at her when he says this and that same transformation mentioned early, which still doesn’t have a name, a word, an expression, a metaphor even, happens to her face. I can tell there is something rising up inside her, and in her case, yes, I can call it a softening, a melting. She says, at first haltingly and then in a rush, that while she was in the perrera, the dog kennels, she had a very hostile interview with some official, she doesn’t know who or from what agency. It was a video call. After telling the rudiments of her story to this official, he told her that she had no case, that she didn’t “look” like someone who was running away from persecution, and that she had no right to be here and request asylum. It was only after the lawyer in that room at that moment had given her a smidgen of hope, a glimpse of confidence in her own story, that she was able to access that other viciously undermining moment. The lawyer repeated his confidence in her case and told her that the agent had no right to tell her what he told her, and what’s more, that he didn’t know what he was talking about, that if she were his client he could get her asylum. I ask her more about the conditions in the dog kennels. For the first time, perhaps the only time that week, I begin to cry with her. The only words that come out of my mouth are, “I’m sorry.” I apologize, because I am that man on the video call, I threw her food on the floor that her daughter had to scrape up, I made her sleep with the stench of the toilet. This is why the lawyer and I are here, I say. This is why we are volunteering. Because we are horrified by what our government is doing and want to help in any way we can. The lawyer also tears up. Her child is still in her arms, listless on her lap. The magnitude of the duress she is under, right at that moment in that room as well as the day before, in that other room, comes to me in waves, and in waves it builds and deepens and spreads and even though I get close, I can never fully grasp it in its entirety. Maybe that’s why she does not leave me, why I don’t want her to leave me. Maybe that’s why, if I go a few hours without thinking about her, I find myself groping around for her. I’ll never get it wholly, but with each wave, I wonder how I could have been so blind and deaf and dumb, so unfeeling until that last one washed over me.

We asked her if she would like the lawyer to accompany her to her interview. She did not hesitate to say yes. The lawyer reported back that she did very well and the officer had indicated to him that she had passed, and the lawyer then found a way to indicate this to her. When she comes to me, I imagine that moment, as if I were witness to it, and I want to cry with her again when a smidgeon of relief allows her to cry, once again.

Arthur Klemperer, who remained in Germany as a Jew throughout the Nazi regime, could do nothing but bear witness, which he did by writing and smuggling page after page into hiding with the help of an Aryan friend. We still have the opportunity to do much more.

Note: A few days ago, the Guatemalan woman I’ve been working with in Oakland was granted asylum, for herself and her two beautiful little boys. The experience and privilege of working with her, the brutality and brilliance of the courtroom yesterday, the joy on her and her older child’s face at that moment… It felt like a ray of light, and I couldn’t help thinking of Leonard Cohen’s well-known lines:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

If you want to know more about the Dilley Pro Bono Program, please go to their website, where you can also donate or volunteer:

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.

Join the email list for our latest news