Officers taking a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody near McAllen, Texas, June 12, 2018. (Photo/JTA-John Moore-Getty Images)
Officers taking a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody near McAllen, Texas, June 12, 2018. (Photo/JTA-John Moore-Getty Images)

Fear, trauma and sickness: this migrant detention center is no summer camp

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The town of Dilley, Texas, is an unlikely site for a school field trip. Drinking the water is ill-advised, thanks to nearby fracking. A local oil rigger described the place as a “shithole.” In this desolate landscape, I and 20 other students of a Spanish human rights course spent a week at the South Texas Family Residential Center — a euphemistic name for America’s largest immigration detention facility — to volunteer with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which provides legal assistance to asylum-seeking families. Operated by CoreCivic, a multibillion-dollar, for-profit prison corporation, the jail houses up to 2,400 women and children, most of whom are fleeing violence in Central America.

When we arrived each day, we walked through TSA-style security and entered the visitation trailer to find women and toddlers coughing and wailing, exhaustion in their eyes, awaiting instruction from pro bono attorneys. Feverish children lay in plastic chairs. Several mothers told us they tried to see a doctor at the medical clinic, but the lines were too long, or they were prescribed Vicks VapoRub and promptly dismissed. My mind couldn’t help but gravitate to the grim possibility that any of these children might join the ranks of the seven who have already died in U.S. custody or immediately upon release.

This was not a summer camp, as an ICE administrator has repeatedly insisted. It was a human holding pen. And yet, these mothers and children had already suffered worse on U.S. soil. Migrants are brought to U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities — known among migrants as la hielera (the icebox) and la perrera (the dog pound) — before Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes them into custody. Traumatized by sleepless nights and inhumane treatment, some women in Dilley burst into tears at the mere mention of these facilities.

Once they leave la hielera or la perrera, mothers with children between the ages of 1 and 17 are sent to Dilley, where they have the chance to pursue an asylum claim. As volunteers, we were tasked with listening to our clients’ stories and helping them articulate how their traumas fit the criteria of American asylum law. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the “right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, our government has been systematically distorting the asylum process, making it unduly difficult for asylum seekers to receive protection.

We are commanded to love the stranger, and yet we lock the stranger in conditions resembling the concentration camps my ancestors fled to escape.

To even begin pursuing an asylum claim, our clients had to prove that the persecution they faced was significant — physical harm or death threats — and motivated by their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or belonging to a particular social group. The category of “particular social group” has been defined and redefined according to the whims of the Trump administration, needlessly curbing protections for survivors of domestic violence and other vulnerable people.

Every woman at Dilley had survived circumstances beyond my worst nightmares — extortion, arson, a lifetime of sexual abuse. Mothers were threatened with death if they did not submit their children to gang recruiters. Local police, more accountable to gangs than to civilians, provided no recourse. For many families, fleeing home was their best chance of survival.

Now, our government wanted to quantify the dangers they would face if they returned. At a “Credible Fear Interview,” asylum seekers must demonstrate that they have at least a 10 percent chance of being persecuted in their home country. To prepare our clients, we resurfaced their worst traumas and prompted them to describe the abuse they would suffer if they were sent back. I spent hours prying for gory details and pushing through tears, then sent them off to the Asylum Office with nothing more than an encouraging word. Hugging is strictly prohibited.

Leviticus commands, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

As we recall our Jewish history as foreigners, it is clear that America’s treatment of migrants is an egregious affront to our teachings. We are commanded to love the stranger, and yet we lock the stranger in conditions resembling the concentration camps my ancestors fled to escape. As I listened to women recount the horrors they endured, I could not help but think of my own family’s history of fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe — and of the historical luck of arriving at a time when refugee policy offered easier entrance. As an American Jew, I am ashamed of my country, but I know we can be better. It is our Jewish imperative to stop the unconscionable treatment of asylum seekers.

The women and children in Dilley have committed no crime. They exercised a fundamental human right and crossed our borders seeking protection. In return, our government herded them through a hellish process, assigning them “alien detainee” numbers and discarding their humanity. Here were our hemisphere’s tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But our southern border lies beyond Lady Liberty’s peripheral vision, so we usher asylum seekers into cages and ice-cold warehouses — when we even let them in at all.

As our government carries out its cruel agenda, selfless lawyers and advocates are challenging it tirelessly. You can support them or, better yet, join them. Volunteer at the pro bono project of your nearest immigration detention center, or seek out ways to volunteer remotely. Donate to RAICES, the Immigration Justice Campaign, the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, Innovation Law Lab, Movimiento Cosecha and others. Protest with Never Again Action, a mass mobilization of Jews fighting to shut down ICE. Show solidarity at vigils, write a letter to the editor, and start registering your neighbors to vote in the 2020 elections. Tell your elected officials to make just immigration policy a top priority. The federal government may not think it’s accountable to human rights law, but it is still accountable to us.

Shiriel King Abramson
Shiriel King Abramson

Shiriel King Abramson is a senior at Stanford University who recently volunteered at an immigration detention center with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, as part of a new collaboration between the Center for Human Rights and the Spanish-language program at Stanford. She is from Tiburon and is a member of Congregation Kol Shofar.