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 https://socialworksynergy.org/.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is in her second year as an Advanced Standing MSW student and will graduate in May 2019. Her next post will be published tomorrow.