Connecticut, US
Everyone Deserves Hope: An Immigration Attorney’s Experience of Volunteering in Dilley, TX
| Jill Bloom

Everyone Deserves Hope: An Immigration Attorney’s Experience of Volunteering in Dilley, TX

It has taken me over two months to digest, analyze, and synthesize what volunteering at the South Texas Family Residential Center (“Facility”) in Dilley, Texas meant to me as an immigration attorney, a woman, and a mom.  It was an intense, nerve-wracking, difficult, emotionally draining but exceedingly rewarding experience. The ability to help those in need and to add value to a challenging situation is invaluable at both a personal and professional level.  This week of volunteering challenged and stretched me in ways that I hadn’t contemplated prior to travelling to Dilley.

I am proud to work for a firm that considers pro bono work paramount. Fragomen sends on average 20-25 attorneys per year to Dilley as we believe in providing access to counsel to those who could not otherwise afford it. Providing free counsel to women and children in need is consistent with our firm’s greater goal of ensuring access to quality representation for the indigent. Through these efforts, Fragomen attorneys make an immediate positive impact in the lives of detainees.

On October 21, 2018, I traveled to a small town called Dilley, Texas over an hour drive southwest of San Antonio, Texas to join up with a group of volunteers including many other Fragomen attorneys who were all donating their time for a week to assist with legal or translation services for the women and children detained at the Facility. The town is situated over an hour drive from the U.S. / Mexican border.  Dilley reports a population shy of 4,000 people with the main industries being work at the various detention facilities or work fracking the land in search of gas. 

Prior to arriving in Dilley, my group virtually attended several trainings covering many topics. We learned about what to expect at the Facility and what would be asked of us during our week of volunteering.  We were challenged to learn the technology that the staff at Dilley uses to manage the necessary administrative tasks.  We were told that we could not drink the water due to water supply damage because of fracking and that we needed to ensure we brought our own water to last the week.  We received training on secondary trauma and stress management. We knew this was going to be hard on many levels but did not fully comprehend our future adventure.

Our main task was to prepare the women and children detained at the facility for interviews in front a U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer.  For these women and their children to be released from custody (to then go through a several year process to see if they can remain in the U.S.), they must establish that they have a credible fear of returning to their home countries.  Our role was to flesh out their story to see if they had a credible fear claim and to then help the women organize their information in a way that was understandable to the asylum officer. 

I was nervous prior to traveling to Dilley. My background is as a business and family immigration attorney.  While I have been practicing this area of law for almost 20 years, I really had not handled an asylum matter. Asylum is its own separate sub-specialty of immigration law with its own rules and requirements.  Fortunately, the employees of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, the group of organizations on the ground at the Facility in Dilley, provided us with good materials to study and delivered a good training session the night before our work began. They were always there to answer any questions we had. 

Each day, we would arrive at the Facility getting ready for a long shift.  Our days ranged from 12-14 hours.  We would submit to going through security (just like at an airport) and would walk directly to the area where legal volunteers worked.  The legal area is a very large trailer with multiple private rooms to meet with the clients (the detained women and children).  The clients would arrive and wait their turn to be called for their time with a lawyer.  Often, based on the number of women and children needing assistance, they could wait for hours to be seen by a lawyer. 

We would then meet with the client in as private as an area that we could.  Sometimes all the offices were taken, and we would talk with them in the main section of the trailer. This could make it challenging for the women to speak openly about their past. We always started the interview with an explanation of why we were meeting with them; a clear explanation of the legal standard; and a reminder that the truth is critical.  We would ask questions to pull out information from them to understand their history and their story. 

The stories we heard; the atrocities that were relayed to us; the terror that these women and children endured were unlike anything I had ever encountered. Often, the women needed to take a break to collect themselves prior to continuing their stories.  These women are survivors. Almost every woman with whom we met was from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.  These countries are overrun with gangs, drug dealers, and corrupt government officials.  The trauma relayed to us by these women is unimaginable to those of us born and raised in the United States.   We are not trained experts in dealing with people who have suffered trauma.  We had immense guilt from making the women tell us their stories but knew this was the only way to help them.  Our goal was to ensure that when that woman left our consultation that she felt prepared and ready to discuss her history with the asylum officer.  That was the best we could do.

The women were exceedingly thankful and gracious.  Their children were so well behaved.  They were the humblest of people while being the fiercest protectors of their children.  They endured hardships in their lives in their home countries; they endured hardships in their long journey through Central America and Mexico; and they continued to endure hardships at the Facility. Even through all this they had a smile on their face and they had hope.

This was absolutely the hardest professional week of my life.  I did not fully anticipate the emotional and physical drain I felt upon finishing my time in Dilley.  It took me a couple of weeks to reset after returning home to my family and work.  People ask me “Are you going to do this again?” and without hesitation, I answer “Yes!”.  I am scheduled to return for a week in November 2019.  Everyone deserves appropriate legal representation to ensure they are treated fairly under our laws.  Everyone deserves a little hope.  I feel it is the least I can do….literally, the least. 

To learn more or to consider volunteering, please click here