Baby Jail, Part 2: The Happenstance of Fate (or, not happenstance at all)

By GuestBlogger (Anon)
This post is the second of a 3-part series documenting the experience of an immigrant rights attorney volunteering at the Family Detention Center in Dilley, TX. Because of the nature of her work, she has requested to remain anonymous. [Read Part 1 here]

By my second day at the detention center, I had begun to get a feel for how things worked. Women sitting at the front (or the back, depending on your point of view) of the trailer were waiting to be helped, but you had to check in with the person running the floor to see what was needed. At a certain point that afternoon, I saw only one woman waiting, separate from the other 2 or 3 in the waiting area. Not seeing the person in charge of the floor, I approached her to see if she had been helped yet. Asking her, in Spanish, what she needed. She responded, telling me that she had been told to wait.

Poster of Mother hugging child. Caption: There is no humane way to detain families.I noticed something in her accent — something I had heard before, though not in the detention center. Something that made her Spanish different from the rest of the women’s. A thought occurred to me, “Señora, usted habla portugues?” (“Ma’am, do you speak Portuguese?”)

“I do!” she said to me, her face lighting up at the recognition and the possibility that I might too. “Eu falo português; deixe-eu ver o que é que você está esperando.”

I went to find our fearless floor leader to see what she was waiting for. He informed me that she had a re-interview the following morning, which he had asked one of the other attorneys to accompany her to, and to prep her for.

[quick sidebar: upon arriving at the center, most women get either a credible or reasonable fear interview. A “positive” result means they can move forward and file a claim for asylum or related forms of relief. A “negative” means they cannot and will be deported back to their home country. A negative result can be reviewed by an immigration judge, and if that immigration judge agrees with the negative, you can then ask for a “re-interview”–i.e. starting from the beginning all over again. This is where we were with her.]

I said to Ian… “Well, I actually speak fluent Portuguese, do you want me to do it?” Being a smart man, he of course said yes.

And so I took this woman, let’s call her “Ana” for the story’s sake, to one of the private rooms, and began to hear her story. She was coming to us (us being the CARA project) late in her stay at the detention center. When she first arrived, she had contracted a private attorney, who represented her at her first interview, and at the immigration judge’s review–though he was not actually present at the review. After her two negatives, one of her cellmates had told her about the CARA project, and she figured she had nothing left to lose–see if we could help or be deported.

Ana spoke enough Spanish to get by–though she was certainly not fluent. At no point, however, had the private attorney communicated with her in her native language, instead, as she said “we had one quick meeting in Spanish.” She had been detained since May, and this was the first time in months she had heard anyone other than her 4 year old daughter speak her language.

Ana was fleeing a group of gangsters in Brazil who she had identified to the police and who had followed her family across the country when they fled–threatening to kill them, torture them, rape them, and worse. They had threatened her family, her children, her self, and one had even personally assaulted her. Without getting into the details of asylum law, take my word at face value when I say: there is a likelihood she could qualify–which is all you need to prove to get a “positive.”

So we prepped for the interview the following morning. We went over the points that were important to her story–the things she must get across. She even told me a much more personal part of the story that she had not told anyone else–not even her husband. When I asked her why she had not told the previous attorney, or the asylum officer or judge, her answer was a combination of “they never asked,” “they could not understand me,” and “how could I, once I already hadn’t? How would I explain to them why I had not?” What it really came down to, though, was: they don’t speak my language.

The next morning, upon arriving at the Asylum Office (one of the three trailers in the 54 acre property we have access to), the Asylum Officer informs me of a fact that I (and CARA) did not know: Ana had not, in fact, been approved for a re-interview. Her request had been denied. Instead, her daughter’s (which has also received two negative’s and who we had also asked for a re-interview) request had been approved. Technically, then, this interview was not for Ana–her chances had run out.

Before I could completely lose my cool, however, the Officer continued– “…however, I’ve reviewed her case, and I don’t see why this has been denied, any of the times. Bear with me, I’m trying to get it re-opened, by the end of the interview we’ll find out. DON’T TELL HER.” So we begin, him telling her (through a telephonic interpreter) simply that they are going to talk about her daughter’s story, which is her story, first.

Within 5 minutes of the interview beginning, I’ve pointed out an important mistake the interpreter has made in translating. Within two more minutes, I point out another, even more important, one: Ana had said that they had reported the crime to the police. The interpreter had translated “and we told people.” Once this happened, the Officer immediately put the interpreter on mute, and said to me, “I can’t believe this, she’s incompetent. I’m not working with her. We’ll try to find another one, and if we can’t we’ll reschedule this for another day this week, when you’re still here.”

And he (very nicely) told the interpreter he wasn’t going to be able to continue the interview, and hung up. To make a long story short, he got another one (telephonically), and continued the interview. Needless to say, I was extremely grateful when this one was competent, and translated things as they were actually said.

And as it turned out, that part of the story that Ana had left out before turned out to be hugely important, and a large portion of the interview was spent on that.

Once we finished, he asked us to step outside and wait. To me, he said that he had gotten the approval from his immediate superiors to try to re-open Ana’s case if he felt it was merited, as long as he was willing to fight for it with the higher ups. He told me he was, and he would. Telling Ana none of this, we went to the waiting room while he fought, almost literally, for this woman’s life. Fifteen minutes later, he came. He read Ana the summary of her story, to make sure he’d gotten everything right, and told us we were free to go.

To me, he said: “I’m giving the daughter a positive. And we are reopening the mother’s case and I’m giving her a positive too.”

Think on that for a moment. If I hadn’t “happened” to be present, if I hadn’t “happened” to speak to Ana, if I hadn’t “happened” to speak Portuguese myself, if I hadn’t “happened” to be in Dilley that week… What would have happened to Ana and her daughter?

What would have happened in those first 10 minutes of the interview?

All the credit, of course, cannot be given to me. The officer clearly came in ready to fight for this woman and her child, and to give Ana the opportunity to tell her story and fight her fight. But if the person accompanying Ana had not spoken Portuguese, had not been able to correct the interpreter’s mistakes, had not been able to make her feel comfortable enough to tell the full story…. Maybe it still would have been enough. But I am much more comfortable in the knowledge that I WAS there, that I DID correct her misinterpretations, and that I WAS able to get Ana’s trust and the whole story. Happenstance or not, take your pick… I am only grateful that I was there.

As grateful as I was and am, however, it made me think…. What about the hundreds of women who do not have an attorney who speaks the language (whether that language be Portuguese, Spanish, or a native dialect) to prepare them, accompany them and fight for them if the interpreter is not telling their story right? What about the dozens, maybe even hundreds, of indigenous women who, except for during the interview they may or may not get, do not even get the opportunity to speak to someone trying to help them in their native language?

Ana is one shining example of someone who’s life I immediately and substantially changed. But what about the rest of the Ana’s who I, and the other dozens of amazing volunteers, cannot reach? Where is their due process? Where is their fair chance? Where is their chance to save their life?

UPDATE: “Ana” was finally release this week after 4 months and 4 days in detention. Her case will move forward in the immigration courts.

[Read Part 3]


Want to DO something? What you can do to help one family fighting detention.

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