Category Archives: social work

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 https://socialworksynergy.org .

 

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).”  https://ublawresponds.com/tag/us-mexico-border-clinic/

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 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.


Prohibitions

 

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 https://socialworksynergy.org .

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.

Hopes

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

by Teresa Watson

Read the initial post at this link: https://socialworksynergy.org/2019/01/25/the-dilley-project-ub-students-at-the-us-mexico-border-1st-post/

 

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: City-Data.com

 

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.

Frustrations

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

 

 

 

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

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