Spending a week helping women and children navigate the asylum process reminded me why I became an attorney:  to help those in need with complex legal issues. Representing clients in a detention facility allowed me to take my compassion and expertise to them. They certainly had the need, and their legal issues were more than complex. I cannot imagine trying to navigate the legal system of a country where I neither spoke the language nor knew the laws. Thank goodness there are teams of lawyers, legal assistants and interpreters who take time away from their practices to help these clients.

In July, I volunteered for the second time with an immigrants’ rights organization at the euphemistically named South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, to help women and children with their harrowing journeys fleeing persecution and violence to seek asylum in the United States. During my week, there were approximately 1,500 women and children at various preliminary stages of the asylum process. (There also were about 1,500 when I was there in 2016.) Most of the clients are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where transnational gangs operate with impunity to extort and murder the most vulnerable individuals. In addition to gang violence, the atrocious women-as-property mentality that some men in those countries have results in women suffering from domestic violence.

Meeting with clients and exploring their troubled present and past in excruciating detail often involved a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, there is the concern of avoiding re-traumatizing the client by digging into painful histories. On the other hand, I had to remind myself to not get so emotionally involved that I could not be an objective, effective counselor. The harsh realities of these women pushed me to the limit. One woman’s husband allowed her to attend church only once per month and then inflicted emotional abuse, because he had converted to Protestantism, and she remained Catholic. Another woman’s husband did not allow her to leave the home and hit her when he arrived with his drunk buddies demanding that she cook for them rather than take the children to the village festival. One teenage boy became despondent, and his mother had to make the difficult decision not to enroll him in school, because the route he walked to school became overrun with delinquent youth gang members who threatened to kill him and his mother if he did not use drugs and join their gang. Several gang members beat up an indigenous woman because of her “dark skin” and told her to go away. After refusing two gang members’ offer to join them, one young boy found himself surrounded by four gang members a few days later. They forced him into a car, drove out of town, shot him and left him for dead. Fortunately, surgeons were able to save his life, and he gained enough strength to make the journey to the U.S. with his mother.

Overlaying these horrible stories – and an entirely new vocabulary I never learned studying Spanish language and literature – is the complicity of each country’s government in the gangs’ criminal empire. Reporting an attack or threat to the police results in nothing at best and the police informing the gang at worst. The police told one woman she’d better stay out of trouble and not report any problems with the gang. The next day, the police drove by her house with the gang member who had assaulted her waving a gun at her. In one small town, gang members raped a 70-year old woman. When the community reported the crime to the police and asked for protection for the elderly woman, the gang returned to repeat the crime two more times. There simply is no safe path forward for these women in their countries. The only life-saving choice is to leave and seek asylum elsewhere.

For background, a very short summary of the asylum process is helpful to provide context. When a foreign national arrives in the United States, if there is no other basis to allow the person to enter the country, an immigration officer asks whether she is afraid to return to her home country and therefore would like to seek asylum here. Depending upon whether she entered through a border crossing, had been in the U.S. before or previously applied for asylum, she typically will be detained while awaiting either a “credible fear interview” (lower standard) or “reasonable fear interview” (higher standard). If the Asylum Officer believes she has a credible or reasonable fear, she will be released, so that she then may present her formal application for asylum to an immigration judge. It could be years before she finally gets to the judge, who will decide whether she can stay or must return to her home country.

By the time the women and children arrived at the Dilley facility, most of them had spent between a day and a week or longer in one of two types of holding facilities, which typically and appropriately are called “freezers” and “dog kennels.” The freezers are concrete block enclosures with no furniture, only rudimentary plumbing, and no heat. The dog kennels are slabs of concrete with three walls and a chain-link fence exposed to the elements for the fourth wall. Each person gets a mylar blanket. For anyone who has run a marathon, the flimsy piece of plastic-foil they give you at the finish line is a mylar blanket—enough to stave off the wind for a few minutes but certainly not enough to keep you warm overnight.

Overlaying what I already knew would be a challenging experience was the prior week’s guidance from U.S. and Citizenship and Immigration Services that severely restricts relying on gang violence or domestic violence when seeking asylum. The guidance implemented the Attorney General’s decision, Matter of A-B-, also from July 2018. The gist of the guidance is to generalize domestic violence and gang violence and put a much higher burden on the asylum applicant to show specific persecution against her and either the government’s direction of the persecution or failure to protect her. If the guidance were not insulting enough, it further suggests that many asylum applicants game the system by getting past the first hurdle in the process only to disappear while awaiting a years-long backlog in the immigration courts.

While all things immigration have been mostly bad news under the current administration, the good news is that attorneys with or without immigration experience are showing up in droves at every type of event imaginable to help vulnerable populations. With each new restriction, we circle the wagons, brainstorm and find solutions for our clients.

When I was in Dilley in 2016, we had a group of about 15 lawyers and legal assistants. My typical day involved introducing the asylum process to a group of 10-15 women and children and then providing individual consultations to help them prepare for their asylum interviews. The asylum landscape was much broader then. It allowed me to meet with 10-15 clients per day and quickly get to the key facts supporting their asylum claims.

This year, with the government’s more restrictive view of what qualifies for asylum, I had time for only 3-4 clients per day. Thanks to the on-site staff, we received helpful briefings on new case strategies and attorney-to-attorney brainstorming sessions to fit our clients’ desperate situations within the changing contours of qualifying asylum grounds. We firmly believe that no human being would make a daring journey lasting weeks or months if she only wanted a better life. Something must be pushing her away from her home country, and she must have a real fear for her life if forced to return. Therefore, the previous 30-minute consultation no longer sufficed. It now demanded at least 45 minutes, and sometimes hours, with often painful probing into troubled pasts and violent episodes, to determine the qualifying grounds for asylum.

To be sure, there was no “coaching” clients in telling them what to say to get past the first interview. Rather, the consultation and preparation sessions involved sifting through the facts, finding the relevant information and developing a story line. This is what attorneys do—analyze a factual situation and apply the law to determine planning options and advise clients. Therefore, the suggestion that asylum applicants are gaming the system is disturbing. What person would risk her and her children’s lives in making a difficult journey if she were a con artist? That’s why the parallel suggestion that refugees are dangerous and require more vetting is preposterous. Most refugees spend years in camps awaiting background check after background check until they finally are approved for travel to the United States.

The increased number of volunteers this year (more than 30) allowed many of us to accompany clients to their credible/reasonable fear interviews before an asylum officer. The interviews last between one and three hours on average and take place in a typical office setting with the asylum officer seated behind a desk and an interpreter, when needed, connected by telephone. The attorney’s participation depends largely upon the discretion of the asylum officer. In some interviews, the officer allows the attorney to ask follow-up questions or to make a brief “closing argument” of the case. In others, the officer permits the attorney only to observe and take notes. For the few interviews I attended, I was impressed with the compassion and attentive listening of the officers in seeking to make sure they understood and had the key details concerning the client’s case.

When I think about the differences between my 2016 and 2018 experiences, I return to another running analogy. As a long-time marathon runner, the running analogy helps me gain perspective. In 2016, I felt like I was running 10-15 simple 5K races each day and was able to help many clients in a short time. This year, it turned into 3-4 grueling marathons each day, some of which seemed to have no end or only more challenges. 2016 was busy and fulfilling. The government’s restrictive approach to asylum made 2018 more intense and very frustrating.

I had hoped that when I went to Dilley in 2016, I’d soon be able to look back and say, “I’m glad I did that. It’s nice to see the end of family detention.” I never thought that two years later, I’d be saying, “I need to get back to Dilley. This situation has not changed, and the need continues.” The skeptic in me can’t help but question why we have this system of detaining women and children in near-prison-like conditions. To take a step back and look at the broader situation, let’s consider some information about the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley.

The Center is about 75 miles south of San Antonio and the same distance from the border at Laredo. I said, “euphemistically named” Residential Center, because I’m not sure the women and children detained there would agree that they’re residents. While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) refers to them as residents, they clearly are being detained. The 10-foot barbed-wire fences, limited visitation hours, search of all persons entering the facility and 24-7 monitoring of “residents” define the terms of their stay.

The Center is owned by ICE and has capacity to house 2,400 women and children. ICE has contracted with the private company Corrections Corporation of America, Inc. (CCA) to manage the facility. CCA also operates under the name Core Civic, Inc. and is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol CXW. According to publicly available information, the company reported a gross profit of $515,961 on revenue of $1.7 billion in 2017. Its CEO earns more than $1 million a year, and the company has nearly 13,000 employees. On its website, CCA states its vision and mission as, “Our Vision:  To be the best full-service adult corrections system. Our Mission:  Advancing corrections though innovative results that benefit and protect all we serve.” Therefore, there is no question that these women and children are not residents but clearly are in detention.

Where do we go from here? We attorneys must keep up our commitment to pro bono service. We also need to share our concerns with our elected officials to encourage them to stand up against the administration to protect the most vulnerable. The administration must end family detention, and, rather than fill the coffers of a contract corrections company, hire more immigration judges and implement other measures to eliminate the backlog of asylum applications. We indeed are a nation of immigrants. We need to remember this and value the contributions of everyone coming to our shores. And we especially need to provide safe passage and protection to those who come seeking our help.