The Trump presidency has been making me feel appreciative, as I see examples of people speaking out against injustice, engaging in activism and prioritizing actions consistent with their values. We’re seeing the best of us, from local and state institutions down to the individual, particularly with how we treat immigrants. Take, for example, my friend Kate Goldman.
Goldman works at Brown University at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She’s bi-lingual, lived in Mexico and Chile and is married to a Chilean native, so the issue of immigration is important to her heart. Once the Trump Administration enacted its ghastly family separation policy, Goldman could no longer sit by and do nothing. After some research, she connected with the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and found a volunteer opportunity in Dilley, Texas.
It took her months to get the invite to Dilley; she applied in June and didn’t go until October, when she finally received clearance from ICE. In the meantime, she learned about a program through the Capital District Women’s Bar Association in Albany, New York. She spent a week in July translating for a group of 300 people who arrived via plane from all over the world, some seeking asylum, others just looking for a job — all just wanting an opportunity for a better life. She helped their lawyers get them released. While the experience felt worthwhile and she heard some hair-raising stories (like the guy who told her he’d never slept as well as he did in jail because at last, no one was trying to kill him), nothing could prepare her for her week in Dilley.
It’s important to distinguish between illegal and legal immigration. Illegal immigration is when you pay big money for a coyote to get you across the border, provide you with false documents and get you a job working at a Trump golf course. Legal immigration is when you follow the process. For asylum seekers, it means presenting yourself at the border and requesting a hearing on the issue of asylum. You know, like all those people in that dreaded caravan were hoping to do.
From the border, many are taken to one of several privately run, for-profit detention centers. The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley is one of these centers. It’s referred to as “baby jail,” because it’s where the women and children seeking asylum wait for their initial hearing. During that hearing, an immigration officer will decide whether you’ve demonstrated the threshold requirements for asylum: past persecution or a “well-founded fear” of future persecution in your home country. If so, you’re released on bond or with an ankle bracelet pending final hearing. If not, you’re sent back to your home country.
For 12 hours a day, Goldman’s job was to prepare asylum seekers for their hearing, also known as the “credible fear interview.” Statistics have shown that preparation is key. The Dilley Project has a 99% success rate getting refugees over that initial threshold.
It’s not about putting words in their mouth; it’s about getting the clients to understand how to answer each question. Goldman felt that, even sympathetic hearing officers won’t necessarily prod for the right answer. For example, the officer may ask, “Why not just move to another city?” An answer like, “It’s dangerous in my country” isn’t enough. Goldman helped each client organize her thoughts and articulate her answers so they could tell their stories and articulate the threats they heard, like, “It doesn’t matter where you go; I’ll find you and kill you.” That’s what the officers need to hear.
According to Goldman, the conditions in Dilley were less than desirable. The maximum capacity for the center is 2,000; there were 1,900 families when she was there. Thanks to fracking, the water contained traces of arsenic and lead. Goldman and her counterparts didn’t drink the water, but the inmates had no other choice. “Every kid I saw there was super sick with illnesses as serious as pneumonia and bronchitis,” she explained. There is medical care, but it’s subpar and the wait can be as long as 7 hours. The situation is perilous; a toddler died last August in Dilley from a viral respiratory infection. Since then, two other children have died in ICE custody.
I asked Goldman if the refugees seemed upset being detained under such awful conditions, and she responded with an emphatic “no.” “If you’re running from a burning building with your baby, you don’t care where you end up. That’s how desperate these people feel,” she said.
In her time there, she spoke with more than 300 women. I asked if any stories stuck out in her mind. “I think one of the worst things is that you think you’re going to remember every story, and then you don’t, and it feels like a huge betrayal that they’ve trusted me with this information and I can’t remember it. I think it’s a defense mechanism.”
She did, however, recall the feeling of relief when she interviewed one mom and her preteen daughter and learned that the daughter was not raped on her journey to America. “The number of girls and women sexually assaulted on the way here is just horrific,” Goldman explained. And sexual assault suffered in their home country is an afterthought. “Rape is so normalized they don’t even see it as a human rights violation that would qualify them for asylum. It’s not the worst of what they’ve been through; it’s not a stand-out event for them in their life.”
Aside from sexual assault, gang violence/recruitment is a major problem, which explains why Goldman was instructed not to wear gang colors. She spoke to a young boy who’d been pressured into joining a gang. One mom told the story of picking up her child from daycare to find him covered in a gang tag, with what appeared to be fake blood on his neck to mimic a throat-slitting. This was done by another preschooler.
It wasn’t all negative and depressing. She did get to experience that “Ellis Island moment” when the refugees were given instructions about their release and told they’d be heading to their new, albeit temporary, home. Most have US connections waiting to house them while they prepare for the long asylum process. “For all of them, it’s a dream realized — a better life is possible. Not a promise; just a chance.” And that chance made it all worthwhile.
Goldman spent a week away from her family, using vacation time from work. Though friends helped fund the trip by donating cash, gift cards, even frequent flier miles, she bore the brunt of the cost. She still feels traumatized by what she saw and heard. “Was it worth it?” I asked her. Of course it was. She continues to volunteer about 10 hours a week translating via phone, and intends to go back. “The whole thing with me this year is: Am I who I say I am? I say I support refugees, I say ‘hate has no home here,’ but at the end of the day, what have I actually done? I can say this is what I’ve done.” Talk about living your principles.
So the next time you think one person can’t make a difference, think of my friend Kate. Her story proves otherwise and I hope that maybe, just maybe, restored some of your faith in humanity. Because that’s something we definitely need these days.