Virginia, US
A Volunteer’s Experience at Karnes Detention Center
| Maria Kamille Chua Go

A Volunteer’s Experience at Karnes Detention Center

Maria Kamille Chua Go shares her experience of volunteering at the “Karnes County Residential Center" that houses immigrant fathers and sons seeking asylum in the US. 

Bantiox’ means ‘thank you’ in Q’eqchi, a Mayan dialect spoken by a considerable number of detainees at the Karnes detention center (officially named “Karnes County Residential Center”) in Karnes City, TX. Many detainees preferred to communicate in one of many minority languages, including Q’eqchi, Ch’orti, Q’anjob’al, Garifuna and others. While most who came through visitation could answer basic questions in Spanish—When did you arrive in the U.S.? Who did you come with? When were you separated from your children? —communicating the full depth of past trauma without the appropriate interpreter presented a significant disadvantage. As volunteers, we had access to a language line, but there were rarely available interpreters for these less widely-known languages. Spanish-speaking volunteers were helpful, but the need for interpreters of different regional dialects was undeniable.

Language barriers were not the only challenges in communication. The detained population at Karnes—entirely made up of fathers and sons—were fatigued from the journey to the United States and the long waits in detention. We met men who had just endured abrupt separation from their children, with whom they were only recently reunited. We met fathers and sons who fled life-threatening events; many spoke of the impossible decision to leave their homes and loved ones behind in order to survive—and see their children survive.

If detainees hope to leave detention and avoid deportation, they must provide coherent and compelling answers surrounding their lives’ most traumatic events at a Credible Fear Interview (CFI). At the end of the CFI, the asylum officer decides if the detainee is credible, and if there is a significant likelihood the father and his son are eligible for asylum. Volunteers anticipate how vital facts may be lost or inadequately communicated, where the opportunity to make one’s case rests in whatever nervous answers can be offered to an investigating officer’s unilateral line of questioning. This requires preparation. To prepare an applicant, volunteer attorneys outline the process, the purpose of the interview, and walk through a mini-interview to learn the individual’s story. Understanding the criteria for asylum, the volunteer highlights critical facts that must not be left out at the CFI, which is transcribed and made part of the record.

In CFI prep, I spoke with individuals fleeing organized extortion, politically-motivated violence and religious discrimination. Uncovering potential claims took many open-ended questions, painstaking recollection, rewinding to clarify a timeline and sequence of events, reminders that consistency is key, and constant pivoting to elicit pertinent facts. Often, the individual endured retelling troubling memories while trying to calm a restless child gently bouncing on one knee.

Intakes, CFI prep or any meeting with a detainee took place in visitation, which resembled a preschool classroom.  Lining the perimeter were smaller private rooms where individual detainees (and sometimes their sons) could meet with a volunteer or two (at least one of whom was Spanish-speaking), away from the mix of loud chatter and children playing and crying in the main room.

Filling the room were volunteer attorneys, guided by RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) attorneys and legal assistants, as well as volunteers from different backgrounds—retired professors, a public defender and even a translator from the private sector who flew in from London. On the walls were vibrant, colorful prints by Brazilian artist Romero Britto. I recognized them because he’s a favorite of my mother, who hung much of his art—of flowers and dancers—on the walls of my childhood home. Seeing the paintings, which I associate with family and home, at a detention center for parents and children seeking asylum was unnerving.

The week was exhausting, sobering and unforgettable.

I enthusiastically encourage anyone interested to contribute your advocacy skills alongside the tireless and compassionate RAICES staff and volunteers.