by Teresa Watson
Editor’s note: This is the sixth and final post in a series from a MSW student who volunteered with the University at Buffalo Law School US-Mexico Border Clinic , assisting women and children seeking asylum, held in a detention center in Dilley, Texas. Look for previous posts at https://socialworksynergy.org .
Reflecting on Dilley
I have made this comment in person to many people, but I was very thankful that I wrote this blog and grateful to the UB School of Social Work for editing it and hosting it for me; for about a week after the clinic I had trouble articulating the entirety of the experience into one easy reply, one soundbite that could somehow encapsulate my experiences there, and so I would refer them to the blog instead. Sending someone a link relieved me of a tremendous amount of emotional labor.
I’ve written this final post several times, and I’m never satisfied with it. I find it difficult to capture the facts and feelings of my experiences in Texas, and I get stuck wanting to explain everything, which is impossible; also, I kept thinking that I needed to convey to everyone that I am mentally and emotionally recovered from the trip. I don’t regret putting up the post about the breakdown, since I felt it was important to be honest about what was a normal piece of experience for me – I did not numb myself, while I was there, though the nature of the work would have made that easy to do, and I think that remaining open to the pain of the women’s trauma expedited my recovery time – but I still hope that the readers of this blog won’t worry about me.
Trauma-informed language /
Yo hablo poquito español (when I speak very little Spanish)
I wanted to talk about the specifics of translating and trauma-informed language, what it was like to have such basic Spanish in that setting, the difficulties of different dialects, the prevalence of domestic violence, and how thankful I was to the crisis agency I previously worked for, and how sad I was that the dynamics of power and control are ubiquitous across cultures. I wanted to talk about being a social worker among (pretty fantastic social-justice oriented) lawyers, how I both craved time to debrief and deeply resented anything or anyone that took up my time in the evenings after those long, exhausting days, how I was genuinely welcomed by the law students but similarly so grateful to the other social workers that I met there, how a staff person asked me about MSWs after she saw me talking to another volunteer about the dynamics of intimate violence, how trauma-informed the project was even in the face of a system that disempowers these women, how so many of the ICE staff were Hispanic people of color, who were kind to the women, at least in front of me, and who seemed grateful that we were there.
Policy changes overdue
I want to explain that I still believe in asylum law but that we desperately need to update it to reflect the realities of peoples’ lives, and that I don’t really believe in borders especially after this trip; I wanted to convey that while our immigration system is broken, and complex, and run by a xenophobic administration, I have grown weary of blasé discussions about it; I want to talk action, policy change, and activism strategy. I want us to be honest about the abusive and racist history of immigration policy in our country, to recognize that ICE has only existed since 9/11, to acknowledge how far we have to come and how much progress we still need to work towards.
I want to convey that I am so very grateful that I went on this trip. I would do it again. But right now, I am also grateful that I was able to return to my home, job, placement, cats – I was able to return to my normal. I think that a combination of survivors’ guilt and the shock of re-acculturation is normal here; one of the law students described feelings similar to that, in fact. But I only feel ecstatic to be home again.
I find that I am affectively impacted by the trip when I try to articulate the week I spent there, but not in my daily life. I believe this is thanks to my history with crisis work: I have practice returning to an emotional “normal” after hearing trauma-heavy stories. I previously studied cases of Human Rights abuses in Latin America, so in some ways I knew what to expect and didn’t hear anything that made a traumatic impact on me; nothing novel shocked me or shook my faith in humanity, or my world view, or perceptions of my safety.
The stories women shared with me were terrifying, horrible, and I firmly believe that no one deserves to go through what they’ve had to endure: of course I know that every single human being deserves safety, affirmation, and freedom. But, even before my week at Dilley, I also knew that this is not the reality for everyone. I knew what intimate violence looks like, what abuses the detention system heaps on those caught up in its nets, and what horrors instability and colonialist intervention inflict to a region and the people living in it.
The epidemic of intimate partner violence
When it comes to the issue of intimate partner violence, I have less to say than I wish I did. Of everything that impacted me while I was there, the commonality of abuse hit me hardest. There is so much I want to learn about the asylum policies and implications for survivors legally that I don’t know yet and haven’t had time to delve into; there are so many policy changes I know we will need to advocate for. But for now, the images of women crying when they explain about the partners who hurt them instead of protected them, who threatened their children instead of supporting them, who controlled their movements, their clothing, everything; that is what I cannot step away from.
Strangely, I felt hope
I wish I could thank the women who shared their stories with me because their willingness to trust me, to be vulnerable with strangers who look an awful lot like the people who put them in detention, was a gift in itself. Every time a woman told me her story I found myself utterly floored by her resilience, and strength. Every time I heard about the man-made evils the women were fleeing, I heard about them from someone whose power overwhelmed me: these women took their kids and left their homes, they traveled across entire countries over the course of a few weeks or months, and even in detention they took care of business for themselves and their children. I do not mean to put my clients on a pedestal, I only want to explain that while I heard about the horrible things people can do to one another I directly witnessed amazing examples of strength, of the capacity to thrive in harsh conditions, and that this gave me hope.
My biggest trauma-related takeaway from this week: these women’s lives. Their stories. Their utterly legitimate fears, and the utter indifference of an asylum system that prioritizes male-dominated protected categories such as “political opinion”, even though vulnerable, marginalized groups– like women – are more likely to be adversely impacted by instability. The patriarchal double standard is written into our laws; it is a part of our society as much as any other. Of everything I saw in Texas, this is the thing that breaks my heart still, every day.
But I have energy now, too, and a direction, and ideas about what I still need to learn. I feel grateful to finally understand how some of my biggest passions (safety, equality, justice) exist at the juncture of Survivor and Migrant, because previously I conceived of these as separate social groups, separate issues. But, of course, everything is intersectional.
I’m not sure I really conveyed what I had hoped to convey, but I think it’s time for me to let go of my perfectionism, and to trust readers to further research these issues as they find a connection to them. I do invite anyone to shoot me an email or stop me in-person with any questions they have, because I hope to continue to raise awareness about this whenever and however I can.
Thank you all for reading; I hope that this writing was helpful to you in some way.
Teresa Watson is in her second year as an Advanced Standing MSW student and will graduate in May 2019.
Here is a link to the UB Law School’s blog, “US-Mexico Border Clinic,” with entries by law students. Two of the titles: “One Shot to Tell Their Story,” and “Espero, Pero Tengo Mis Dudas (I hope, but I have my doubts).” https://ublawresponds.com/tag/us-mexico-border-clinic/