The Dilley Project: UB Students at the US-Mexico Border – 1st post

by Teresa Watson

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to bring you this series by one of our #MSW students about her volunteer work during the 2018-19 winter intersession. Comments are welcome!


A pair of hands are cupped, each holding a torn piece of paper bag with one word written on it.

Photo: UB Law School


Hello, readers – I’m Teresa! It’s nice to meet you. I’m an advanced-year MSW student, a Graduate Assistant for the Global Interest Group in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, and a volunteer with Justice for Migrant Families in Western New York. I’m part of a team of law and social work students who are spending this week at the South Texas Family Detention Center in Dilley, Texas, assisting asylum seekers.

I hope these daily accounts (there will be a week’s worth of posts) will give you a picture of what asylum seekers encounter at the southern border.

To prepare, the law students completed two weeks of intensive study in refugee and asylum law, three hours a day, four days a week. I attended half of these classes, and studied independently to gain more knowledge about social work, trauma and working with refugees.   I also adapted a presentation by Katie McClain-Meeder, MSW, and led a class on trauma and vicarious trauma in crisis work for the law students.

Picture of boy being carried by brother, as family walks ahead in rural area with mountains in distance

Slide from presentation to law students on trauma



On our way

Right now it is 6 PM on Sunday, January 20th, 2019, and I am on a plane with five JD students, one JD/MSW student and one PhD Candidate in the Romance Languages. We are headed to Dilley, Texas, as a volunteer team with UB Law Professor Nicole Hallett, who directs the U.S.-Mexico Border Clinic, attorney Carey who practices immigration law, and clinical social worker(MSW) Maria, from Rochester, New York.

In Dilley, we will be working with asylum seekers from various countries who have been detained at the U.S./Mexico border; our team will be working with women who have children at this particular facility. We will work in pairs, preparing as many women as possible for their initial interviews with US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers. These interviews determine whether they pass the “credible fear” standard, which is the legal standard that says the asylum officer must find at least a 10% chance that their fear of harm —  the harm they fear they will face if they return to their home —  is “credible” or realistic.  If they pass the interview, they become eligible to plead their case in court at a later time and remain in the US to keep them safe from the credible fears they were facing in their prior home.

two picnic benches in front of a long view of trailer-like tan buildings ngs

South Texas Family Residential Center, Dilley, Texas. Photo credit: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement

We had trouble coordinating flights, rescheduling twice due to bad weather – we had to put these new flights on our personal credit cards, which we will have to get reimbursed by the project upon our return. The funding was raised by crowdsourcing by the students and faculty, with the funds administered through the UB Law School.  It was even suggested that we rent a van and drive the over 1,700 miles to Texas, or drive to Toronto (90 miles from Buffalo) or Cincinnati where the weather was milder and book flights there. We will arrive in Dilley much later than anticipated, landing around 1 AM.  We’ll do some late-night grocery shopping for the team at a store near the airport. I’m most upset about missing the volunteer orientation we were supposed to do tonight, but I know the folks on the ground at the Dilley Project must have had this happen before: flights get delayed all of the time, right?

I’m very impressed with our team, so far. Everyone is highly receptive to discussing trauma, their own coping skills, utilizing their strengths and those of the clients, and embedding empowering language and safety/choice measures into their client interactions. We are all attuned to the fact that this is a critical situation for the asylum seekers, and this work is difficult not only for the clients but for everyone in a helping position.  The team members are clever and insightful and we have developed strong bonds, which I think will serve us well throughout the week we are here.

Initial worries

My biggest anxiety is that I have NO real idea of my role here. This is the first time a social worker has gone on a trip with a law clinic course, and it is the first time UB law students are going to this particular facility in Dilley to help the asylum seekers.   Maria, the social worker from Rochester, has been wonderful and reminded me that there will be so much to do that I can’t possibly find myself twiddling my thumbs or feeling useless, but I do worry about what I can do that would be the most useful. I hope to have a better idea of the social work role here by the end of the trip, so that the next MSW student that goes down has some framework for what they should expect.

I am kicking myself for taking ASL (American Sign Language) classes over the summer instead of trying to revive my rusty high school Spanish skills. I know some basic phrases, and I understand that some of the most important communications are nonverbal, but I can’t imagine taking an interpreter away from one of the law teams. If someone makes an important revelation to me and I don’t understand it is very worrisome.


I really don’t know what to expect. The self-care plans that I helped the law students write up will be impeded by several factors, including the lack of workout equipment or walkable roads at the hotel. I brought a journal, mindful coloring sheets, colored pencils and markers, index cards, fiction and mindfulness books, and five shades of glitter. However, my biggest self-care hope is to spend time looking at the stars, which are reportedly beautiful and vibrant in this rural area. Dilley is so small it doesn’t drown out starlight like Buffalo’s light pollution does. And, tonight is a lunar eclipse! One benefit of getting in so late is that we are already going to be up while the eclipse happens. My hope is that the hotel will allow for rooftop access, but even if there isn’t, I intend to find somewhere to see this eclipse.

More to come!


Teresa (head, shoulders, arms) holding lilacs, lying on ground with eyes closed

Photo: author

Teresa Watson is in her second year as a an Advanced Standing MSW student and will graduate in May 2019.




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