Category Archives: asylum

The Dilley Project: UB Students at the US-Mexico Border – Sixth Post

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 .


us mexico border dry hilly landscape with iron slab fencing interrupted by steep incline

Bill Morrow. 2017. Photo. U.S. Mexico Border. Retrieved from Flikr. Used by permission (CC BY 2.0).


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)

spanish english language wordle with numerous terms listed such as "verb" "slang" "speakers"

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.

bumper stucker style image, wiht many types of violence agianst women listed: rape, trafficking, domestic violence, "honor" crime, femicide, sexual abuse, forced marriage, genital mutilation, harassment, sexual exploitation.

Bea Serendipity _ Ghee. 2013. Photo. SL SAY NO – End Violence Against Women. From Flikr.     Used by permission CC BY 2.0.



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.

Audre Lorde and her quote: "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives."

In closing

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.

In Community,



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

Teresa stands under a soflty glowing wall sconce.

Teresa Watson in Dilley, Texas, January 2019.            Photo courtesy of author.


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).”



The Dilley Project: UB Students at the US-Mexico Border – Fifth Post

by Teresa Watson

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts from a MSW student who is volunteering with the University at Buffalo Law School US-Mexico Border Clinic , assisting women and children seeking asylum, in a detention center in Dilley, Texas. Look for previous posts at .


January 25, 2019


The Breakdown


I really thought I was going to make it through the week without crying, but I was wrong. Today I had my breakdown. 


It was in the last 3 hours of my time here. Leighann Ramirez, the JD/MSW Student and wonderful person who roomed with me for this trip, estimated we gave over 80 hours of labor, including meetings and time spent transcribing our notes into the system (for the Pro Bono Project in Dilley) in our hotel rooms each night, as well as with all the clients seen during the day.


two women stand in front of small palm tree

Teresa (L) with her Dilley Project roommate, Leighann Ramirez, a JD/MSW student. Photo courtesy of the author.


I hadn’t had lunch, or a chance to take one, until 4:30 pm.  We had so many cases today: women whose stories were truly horrifying but who didn’t experience persecution as a result of their belonging to an recognized social group, or who needed to reach family that could remember details for their claim, or whose complicated life stories just took a long, long time to tell. The Pro Bono staff (part of the American Immigration Lawyers Association) told us that we had been averaging 65 prep interviews a day; today, we had to get through 78 because the clients have credible fear interviews on Saturdays AND Mondays. It was overwhelming.


Teresa in a selfie, with tears in her eyes

It was not a good day. Photo courtesy of the author.









Sarah, a law student with our team, joked that I had tears for lunch. She’s not wrong.


Gender just doesn’t count


I love the idea that we don’t give up on any of these women. I love the hope that they can all prove that their fear of returning is credible (remember, that’s a 10% likelihood that their fear for their safety or their children’s safety is valid), I love their hope for their kids, I love that they trust us enough to let us help them, but I hate this system. I hate the requirement that we help them find a “nexus”, which is when a particular social group they belong to was the basis for their experience of persecution. “Particular Social Groups” are those that the asylee belongs to and cannot change, such as family, or sexual or gender identity as LGBTQ. The Pro Bono Project says that womanhood, single motherhood, business ownership and poverty are not social groups that generate strong claims in the eyes of the U.S. immigration law as judged by the Fifth Circuit. If MS-13 or B-18 gangs assaulted these women or threatened their lives directly, that claim is unlikely to pass muster unless those who acted to inflict a specific harm to the woman did so because she is a wife or sister of someone who upset them in some way. While family is recognized as a legitimate social group. Unfortunately, we were told that gender is not generally accepted by the Asylum Officers in Dilley.


World map in blue as background with silouhettes of alin eof people walking in front of it

Image: Pixabay


I feel worn down by these legal hoops. The women can prove they are in grave danger; they show us their scars, physical and emotional, thinking that the law will understand this, and it doesn’t. It just. . . . doesn’t.

(Watch for the sixth blog post, “Coming Home” – coming soon!)

Editor’s note: Here is a link to the UB Law School’s blog, “US-Mexico Border Clinic,” with entries by law students. Here are just two of the titles: “One Shot to Tell Their Story,” and “Espero, Pero Tengo Mis Dudas (I hope, but I have my doubts).”

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

9 of the students stand in front of a van, at the hotel in Dilley.

Photo of the students in the UB-Mexico Border Clinic group, courtesy of the author.




The Dilley Project: UB Students at the US-Mexico Border – Fourth Post

by Teresa Watson

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts from a MSW student who is volunteering with the University at Buffalo Law School US-Mexico Border Clinic and assisting women and children seeking asylum, in a detention center in Dilley, Texas. See previous posts at

Toxic Water, Toxic Environments


Finding the energy to compose a new post is always a challenge at the end of the days here, because my brain is exhausted, and unfortunately, I’m not a morning person. We need to be dressed, breakfasted and ready leave the hotel by 7:15 AM, so I’ve never managed to write posts in the mornings. At the end of a day like this, though, it feels impossible to explain all of the experiences we fit into that day, and equally impossible to create distinct entries when I can’t (for important reasons, of course) discuss specific cases. There is a sameness to the cases that can border on monotony, sometimes, since the legal framework doesn’t adapt to each persons individual life experiences; instead, their life experiences have to adapt to the legal framework. But for this entry I will try to explain some of the things that – well, that most upset me, I guess. Complaints aren’t very solution-focused but these complaints are true.



Firstly, we are not allowed to share anything with the clients, not food or water or gifts of any sort – including coloring books or toys for the kids.

Share in red circle with slash through it that means no sharing

We can give them paper or individual pages to draw on but we are not allowed to bring things to color with into the facility, and I have – multiple times – presented kids with half of a black crayon, a yellow highlighter and a blank paper because it was all we had. Sometimes we would make paper airplanes so the kids could zoom them around the room, or my partner would fold a few sheets into a tight football so they could toss it around gently. It is possible to ask the ICE staff for crayons but, honestly, I generally felt I had to “save up” for more important asks, like coaxing them to look for clients who are missing their appointments- several times a day.

We are not allowed to bring in more than a day’s worth of food and drink; no make-up (lip balm was OK), no cans of food, no more clothing than you would wear in a day, no more over-the-counter medicine than you would use in a day, no cell phones or cameras, and no liquids besides things like tea, water, coffee, etc. The dress code is strictly enforced as well, requiring short or long sleeves, high-necked shirts and knee length skirts, no midriffs, and nothing too tight.

The inability to give these kids something, ANYTHING to do besides watch the movie ICE is playing (in English) or handing them a paper and pen and hoping for the best definitely bothered me- but it did not bother me as much as being unable to share the water with them.

Poisoned Water

Here’s the thing about their water: we volunteers don’t drink it. The Pro Bono staff doesn’t drink it. The ICE staff doesn’t drink it. But the clients do. The clients HAVE TO. The Pro Bono Project tells us that the water is tainted with man-made arsenic, a poison that seeps into the water supply as a result of industrial practices, like fracking; there is also a high likelihood of E. coli being in the water as well because of runoff from cattle ranches and agriculture.


dilley hotel food water supplies

Water and food that the volunteers bought to consume during their stay. Photo courtesy of author.






We are forbidden from even sharing our safe water, our jugs and bottles of non-toxic water which is arguably the most important of the needs at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy, with the clients.



pyramid with 5 levels each in different color, describing the hierarch of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Image: Simply Psychology


I’ll be honest with you all, some volunteers did refill the clients paper cups from their own bottles sometimes; I personally never offered to get anyone a drink, not even a sobbing woman who probably could have really benefited from the physically-grounding experience of just drinking water, because I couldn’t bring myself to offer her poison. Some of our clients have babies, or are pregnant – and they’re drinking arsenic. All. Day. Long.

Some of the volunteers say this – the toxic water – is a human rights abuse that they just don’t have enough evidence to litigate yet. I believe that’s true, but even the ICE staff there use their own jugs of bottled water to fill up their coffee makers and then, while the coffee is brewing, turn around and use unfiltered, tainted tap water to fill up the water jugs for the women and kids. From their actions I infer that they also know that what’s in the water there can’t even be boiled out, but somehow it’s not in the budget to bring in clean water for the clients.

If we share our water or food, if we touch the clients, if we hug a kid or comfort a mother by holding her hand, if we are seen offering more than the simplest handshake, we can earn ourselves a lifetime ban and potentially get the whole Pro Bono project in trouble.

Violence against women

The other thing that struck me deeply was the volume of domestic violence/interpersonal violence these women had experienced, and the lack of time to offer support and all the potentially re-triggering questioning that were required in the process of preparing the women for their interview. This issue deserves its own post, or perhaps an entire paper once I have time to sit down and process and research my way through the issue.


Chart lists reasons of why violence against woman and girls matter

Chart: Strive, The Lancet


The truly distressing detail here, beyond the omnipresence of violence enacted against women, is that domestic violence is being removed as grounds that will qualify someone to seek asylum. I knew that the removal endangered the lives of many women; now, I know what their faces look like, what their stories sound like, and what their children’s names are. I know EXACTLY who the U.S. has decided is not worthy of protection.

That’s it for today; hopefully I will have more spirited or inspiring posts to follow.


Teresa stands under a soflty glowing wall sconce.

Teresa Watson, at the hotel in Dilley, Texas, January 2019. Photo courtesy of author.

Teresa is in her second year as an Advanced Standing MSW student and will graduate in May 2019. Her next post will be published tomorrow.


The Dilley Project: UB Students at the US-Mexico Border – Third Post

by Teresa Watson

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts from a MSW student who is volunteering with the University at Buffalo Law School US-Mexico Border Clinic , assisting women and children seeking asylum, in a detention center in Dilley, Texas. Look for previous posts at .

January 22, 2019


People are telling us their best hopes; we have to get them back to their darkest fears.

I don’t know if I can express fully what I mean by this, or if there’s a way for me to capture the complex feeling I hope to convey. I do not mean that we have to break them down; I think that we all try very hard not to re-traumatize our clients, to be kind, gentle, to care about them and their stories. I notice the staff giving trauma-informed care when they talk about making sure people know that these records are confidential, that they are safe here, making sure that clients get breaks when they need them, and instructing volunteers about which traumatic details are necessary to dig into and which we definitely do not need to ask about.



But what we DO see is that clients, almost always, have normalized the fear, the danger of their lives – and so when you ask them about what made them come here, they talk instead about hope.



They will tell you they are here for a sense of safety. They are here to give their kids a better life. They are here because the economic opportunities for single mothers are insufficient where they’re coming from, because their kids’ education has been stalled out at home, because they have a friend here, a cousin, they hear it is better for women, better opportunities for their kids. They want their daughters to marry men who will treat them with respect, and they know from experience that violence cycles within families – and they came here to break that cycle.


plumes of tall grass against a gold and blue evening sky

Credit: Jan Tik, licensed under CC by 2.0








Read more

The Dilley Project: UB Students at the US-Mexico Border – Second Post

by Teresa Watson

Read the initial post at this link:


First day in Dilley: 1/21/19

I didn’t have the energy to write out notes last night, beyond some bullet points, so I’m writing this morning from the facility while I wait for my partner to finish up a “Charla” (a chat or conversation), which is essentially a group informational session to inform the clients about the Credible Fear Interview (CFI) process they will undertake to establish that they are eligible to make their Asylum claims in court, and about how the volunteer lawyers will help them talk through their asylum claims before the have to meet with the Asylum Officer to present their claim.



Map of southeast Texas, showing, from North to South: Austin, San Antonio, Dilley, and Laredo which is in the border of Mexico.

Dilley is about 85 miles north of Laredo on the border. Map:


Our morning began very early, getting up at 6 AM in order to grab showers, eat breakfast at the hotel and arrive at a neighboring hotel for a make-up training for the one we missed Sunday night. It was really interesting, and I took a ton of notes – the team here has really gotten specific with what does and doesn’t work well here, with legal cases.


Prep Sessions

I have a ton of updates! It turns out that I’m doing almost the exact same work as the law students, at least during the day: I am doing CFI (Credible Fear Interview) Prep sessions with Cary, an attorney and one of our team who is helping to translate for me. As I talked to the other teams, it seems all teams broke down the roles in similar ways: Cary translates the gist of the information for me, and I take notes and do slightly more of the structural/legal labor for the case (I will explain more on that later); Cary does more of the intensive labor of listening for important details, which we can further discuss with the client to see if those experiences are likely to qualify them for asylum. Since I am keeping notes – and luckily I understand enough Spanish to take super-basic notes on the details the women tell to Cary. I then flesh them out when his translates. I create timelines to fit the women’s cases to the structure the Dilley project uses to help women meet asylum criteria. I try to be sure we review all of the questions that the asylum office will ask the women, as well as some screening questions – to determine if they were illegally denied entry at the border, if they are pregnant, if they have been separated from their family by the detention centers, if they have experienced domestic violence.


I find that I’m worried about the client interviews, and that I cannot know if I’m doing enough to prepare them. A few hours is such a small amount of time for someone to tell their entire life’s story, or to establish the threats to their liberty or life that they have lived with and had to flee from. I also find that the language barrier is a tremendous frustration when I can’t respond directly to their questions, revelations, etc. We only talked to three women yesterday, and we started around 12:30 PM, and went until 7:30 PM; the on-the-ground volunteers tell us that we will get faster, and more confident and comfortable, as the week goes on.

young woman and boy kneel in front of a protest sign, chalking words on pavement

Refugee Rights Protest (Australia) Photo credit: Takver CC BY-SA 2.0




Stay tuned!!

Teresa’s third post will be published January 28, 2019.









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

Teresa Watson is in her second year as an Advanced Standing MSW student and will graduate in May 2019.      Photo: from author




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