Goal 10. Reduced InequalitiesGoal 16. Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions

5. Asylum Officers, Volunteers, & Staff Collide at the Detention Center

By August 8, 2019 No Comments
Illustration by Chloe Olsen

The Detention Center Staff

“One woman had a toddler who was sick with a fever. She was given acetaminophen at 6  pm, but by 11pm, the child had bloodshot eyes, felt very hot to the touch, and was shivering. The mother begged for another dose of medication, but was turned away unsympathetically and told to come back after the full six hours had passed.”

Some of the staff were sticklers about rules (a woman had come with a slit too high in her skirt and was turned away; another had accidentally tried to enter with 2 tubes of Chapstick and was turned away; another was caught trying to take a photo of the facility from the parking lot and had her volunteer privileges entirely revoked; some other infraction resulted in the loss of use of two of the private interview rooms in the trailers, forcing some sensitive interviews to be held out in the open of the larger room). So we entered with a level of apprehension about the experience. 

Happily, our exchanges with the staff were largely positive. They were generally friendly. For example, they provided us with recommendations on where to eat in a nearby town (Dilley has VERY little to speak of regarding restaurants), and would sometimes make small talk while they escorted us the 100 yards to the asylum officer’s trailers (we weren’t allowed to walk there unaccompanied).

While our interfacings with them were largely positive, there were a few things that made us aware that the way they treated us was not necessarily the same way that they treated the detainees there. For example, the women are supposed to be able to come to “our” trailer to consult with an attorney at any time during the hours of operation (7:30am-8pm). However, it is not uncommon for a woman to be turned away for inexplicable reasons. Guards can be quite short and impatient with the women as well, which can be incredibly intimidating. Additionally, while there is a medical clinic there, they can be unreasonably strict about the treatments provided. One woman had a toddler who was sick with a fever. She was given acetaminophen at 6 pm, but by 11pm, the child had bloodshot eyes, felt very hot to the touch, and was shivering. The mother begged for another dose, but was turned away unsympathetically and told to come back after the full six hours had passed. It could be that they (the Detention center workers) have strict rules about only giving the medicine every 6 hours, but if so, that was not communicated to the mother. They didn’t take the toddler’s temperature or vitals. 

They generally work 12-hour shifts and would commute from out of town. It is understandable that anyone can have a bad day and be cranky from time to time, if that is the case with these interactions, then it is sad that the crankiness is taken out on these women. If that is not the case, then I fear that these women, even in the “nicer” facility in Dilley receive unfair, unkind, and sometimes cruel treatment on a regular basis.

The Volunteers:

The law firm where my sister works is Dorsey and Whitney, LLP. The firm approved the pro bono project and sponsored our group, something for which I’m incredibly grateful!! Our group consisted of Jolynn Markison, Kristen Olsen, Siena Caruso, Divya Gupta, and Erin Bryan along with 3 interpreters: Milca Dominguez, Krystal Mondor, and myself. In addition, we were joined by Alison Grifith (who, together with Jolynn Markison made the project happen) a Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights, who came to support the Dorsey and Whitney group. It was an honor to work for a week alongside a group of dedicated, inspiring, strong, intelligent women who care, made sacrifices to come, and ultimately who just “get it”. 

We arrived and joined a larger group of volunteers (attorneys and interpreters) who came from all over the country. There were about 30 of us in all, less than 5 of whom were men (we could unpack why the gender scales were tipped heavily to the female side, … but that’s another story altogether, *sigh*)

The amazing full-time staff on the ground who patiently guided us through the week included interns, paralegals, and attorneys. There were about eight of them. They work long hours, often behind the scenes and through weekends making sure that everything is done accurately and is up to date. They repeat the same trainings each week as a new batch of volunteers arrives. The repetitive and traumatic nature of the work they do is awe-inspiring. For more information on them, visit: https://www.immigrationjustice.us/volunteeropportunities/dilley

The Asylum Officers:

Their job is to interview applicants about claims persecution, research country conditions to evaluate applicants’ claims, and review law enforcement databases to identify any potential bars to asylum, such as criminal behavior or national security concerns, etc. 

I had the opportunity to accompany two of our clients to their credible fear interviews with the AOs. Gratefully, in both of those cases, the AOs were respectful, patient, and genuinely seemed as though they wanted to help the women (although, as of yet, I don’t know the results of the interviews). There was a theory going around that we got some “nice” AOs because many were reassigned from Refugee Resettlement programs. 

Other people in our group were not as fortunate. Some AOs were in a big hurry and were therefore impatient, cutting people off, not allowing the attorney to clarify or ask questions, etc. Their demeanor was rude. 

For the detained women, who they get as their AO is like a game of Russian Roulette. There is no control over what mood the AO will be in, what their political leanings are, nor how they will treat you. 

This article is helpful and accurately describes much of what we saw/experienced. If you want to understand more about the process and the changes that are happening from the perspective of an AO, I highly recommend this read that was published in the Washington Post.

Part 6 of this story will address my biggest “take-aways” as well as what YOU can do to help.

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