Stories from Dilley, Texas: A Firsthand Account of Representing Asylum Seekers at the Nation’s Largest Family Detention Center

By: Sheeva Ghassemi-Vanni

Immigration reform is one of those hot-button topics that is bound to spark a lively debate at any dinner table. Although the Biden administration has outlined an immigration strategy, including a series of executive orders and congressional recommendations intended to mitigate the damage done by President Trump’s policies, there is much work to be done. For many Americans, it is easy to think of immigration reform as a political agenda item and forget that there are real people behind this issue. With that in mind, I am sharing the stories of the immigrant women and children I met in Dilley, Texas.

When I set off for Dilley in February 2020—one month before COVID-19 and shelter-in-place halted the country (and then the world)—I didn’t know what to expect as I wound my way through San Francisco International Airport, blissfully maskless and unaware of how our lives were about to change. I was traveling with a group of colleagues from my law firm, Fenwick, for a week-long trip to help women and children seek asylum at the border. I left my husband and two-year-old daughter behind, along with my startup employment law practice in Silicon Valley, and embarked on my week of service. What I experienced was profoundly rewarding, inspiring and disheartening.

The women we met at the South Texas Family Residential Center, the nation’s largest family detention center, were being detained while undergoing expedited deportation proceedings. Our main objective during this trip was to secure their release from detention so that they could seek asylum under the normal, non-expedited process. Under this expedited process, the women first had a credible fear interview with an asylum officer (often a Border Patrol Agent). If they passed the interview, they were released from detention. If they failed the interview, they could appeal the decision to an immigration judge, who would then decide their fate—deportation or stay in the United States and continue to seek asylum. If the judge did not rule in their favor, the asylum seekers could seek an additional appeal, which was rarely granted. We were responsible for preparing the women for their credible fear interviews and representing them in court.

Day after day, I sat across from women—all mothers—who shared their harrowing and deeply personal stories of what drove them to seek asylum in the U.S. One mother told me that her husband tied her to a bed every day and only untied her when she needed to use the restroom; he repeatedly beat her and her young son when her son tried to intervene and protect his mother.

Another woman was enslaved by her aunt to work without pay and she and her son were beaten and starved. When she fled from her home to Mexico, she and her son were kidnapped by a man who kept them locked in his house for a month, raped her repeatedly and starved both her and her son.

In one particularly heartbreaking case, both a mother and daughter were raped by Mexican cartel members, but neither had told the other. They failed their initial credible fear interview because they were interviewed together and did not want to reveal this fact to each other. My colleague and I discovered this fact by talking to them separately, and we were able to secure their release from detention by submitting this new information in court.

Unfortunately, I handled at least one other case involving rape of both a mother and daughter, which involved the eventual beheading and dismemberment of the mother. Of the more than 30 women I helped during my time in Dilley, there were many more stories of unspeakable horrors and unimaginable pain.

I represented 16 women in their court proceedings. In the “courtroom”—a trailer with a few chairs, basic audiovisual equipment and a surly guard—I advocated for these women, via video, to a judge in Hawaii. My interpreter was denied entry into the courtroom, leaving me with only my broken Spanish if I wanted to communicate confidentially with my client. When a few of the women I represented referenced scars from beatings and mutilation at the hands of spouses and cartel members, the judge asked the guard to verify the scars by visually examining the women. One guard I encountered was dismissive of the scars, saying things like, “I don’t know, that could just be a cold sore” while the women frantically pointed at their faces and bodies showing clear evidence of their abuse.

I sat next to these women while the judge peppered them with questions, through an interpreter, and only allowed me to speak at the end of each case. During my speaking opportunities, I mentioned facts that had not been uncovered by Border Patrol Agents during the credible fear interviews, but which were integral to my clients’ cases. I received successive doses of reality as the judge made her rulings on each case, and my clients wept with joy or despair depending on their fates. Although I was able to secure release for many of the women and children I represented, I remain haunted by the stories of those I could not help—those who were sentenced to deportation and likely death upon return to their home countries.

Oddly, I was the lucky one of my colleagues, most of whom were not permitted by their judges to speak—let alone advocate—for their clients. In a particularly cruel episode, a woman represented by one of my colleagues told a judge that, if sent back to her home country, she and her children would be killed, to which the judge responded, simply, “safe travels.”

The women in detention have little to no rights. For example, I was preparing a mentally disabled woman for court, and she mentioned that she was being given medication while in detention, but she had no idea what it was or what it was meant to treat. I encouraged her to go to the pharmacy and ask them to write down the medications and dosages for her, but the pharmacy refused, telling her that she would have to go through the formal channels to request this information. When we were finally able to get the names of the medications, we discovered that she was being given antidepressant, anti-anxiety and pain medications, despite never having taken prescription medication before in her life. Further, none of the medications seemed to address her underlying mental condition and instead seemed aimed at pacifying her.

When I returned from Dilley, I was emotionally, mentally and physically drained. Nothing in my world seemed to matter as much. I felt numb. It took much-needed reflection time and talking through what I had experienced to help me get through it. In fact, writing this article is a part of that process. A few days after I had returned, I received news that one of the women I had prepared for her interview right before I left Dilley had passed and been released. This happy news could not have come at a better time, and it stirred in me the hope that I continue to have for the futures of these women and children.

I decided to go to Dilley because I wanted to help, being myself the daughter of an immigrant. My father came from Iran to the U.S. for college with every intention of returning to his home country. However, fate intervened, and he met my mother, a blonde-haired, hazel-eyed American woman. They married and together achieved the American dream—my father was an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley for many decades until his recent retirement, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom who dedicated herself to raising me and my brother. After nearly 50 years of marriage, they continue to live this dream and to help me achieve mine. I can only hope that I have helped to give the women and children I represented in Dilley a chance at their own American dream.

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Women and children seeking asylum are still in need of capable legal representation. I have the utmost respect for the attorneys and staff at the Proyecto Dilley, who manage to do daily what I did for only one week. For more information about how you can help, please visit: https://immigrationjustice.us/volunteeropportunities/dilley/.

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