Dominique and Cristina Volunteer at the Border

Just Neighbors attorneys, Dominique Poirier and Cristina Sproul, spent a week down at the Karnes Detention Facility in Karnes City, Texas at the end of October working with immigrant fathers and sons detained at the center. The trip was facilitated through a stipend received from CLINIC, and Dominique and Cristina volunteered as immigration attorneys, partnering with RAICES, a Texan non-profit which staffs the Karnes Detention Facility.

Karnes Detention Facility is presently used to house male family members: There are no single males in the facility and all detainees are fathers who have sons. The youngest son we worked with was 2 years old, up through teenagers. Often, these families cross the border and turn themselves into CBP, expressing a fear of returning to their home countries, which are crime ridden and run by gangs. They usually are held in “hieleras” (very cold rooms) for about 2 days followed by a 2 day detention in “perreras”, a large cage with one bathroom for about 24 people. After detention near the border for 4 days or so, these individuals were eventually brought to Karnes Detention Facility. There, if they had expressed a fear of returning to their home countries, an asylum officer would interview them during what is called a “Credible Fear Interview”. If these detainees successfully passed their Credible Fear Interview, they were often released into the U.S. with ankle monitors and must report to ICE weekly or monthly and attend all their court dates as they are all in removal proceedings. If they do not pass their Credible Fear Interviews, the detainees are usually deported.

Cristina and Dominique worked with the detainees for 4 days, assisting with intakes for very recent arrivals, as well as preparing detainees for their Credible Fear Interviews, and advising detainees on their obligations upon release for those who were awaiting release. Cristina and Dominique also advised detainees on what to do if they did not pass their Credible Fear Interviews.

The entire program was facilitated by RAICES San Antonio office which provided transportation to the detention facility and provided all the materials needed to meet with clients. These were fairly long days: Arriving at the RAICES offices by 8:30 am for the trek down to Karnes; working at Karnes until 6 pm or so before trekking back to San Antonio an hour away. Typically we saw several clients per day. Some we worked with for only 30 minutes or so, others for 4 hours or more. All the detainees expressed fear of returning to their home country although some had far more difficulty articulating that fear than others.

Some detainees’ stories stood out. One client stated he had come to this country “to work”. Anyone who comes for economic reasons only, generally does not qualify for asylum and will not pass a Credible Fear Interview. However, after interviewing him, we discovered that the gangs had severely beaten him with a bat during an extortion attempt at a relative’s store and he still bore deep scars on his body from the beating. Moreover, the gangs had been extorting money from him on his way home from work almost daily. Finally, he was told he would be killed and dismembered because he had been trying to avoid paying the extortion fee required by the gangs on his way home from work. After the last threat, he had fled to the U.S. with one of his sons. What we finally understood by the end of his interview, is that his main goal was to work and support his family honestly, without having to pay the extortion fees, fear for his life, or suffer beatings when refusing to pay the gang’s fees. Initially, he had not articulated his persecution by the gangs, but we were able to inform him of the important facts of his case which he needed to highlight during any Credible Fear Interview or any court hearing.

The other detainees who stood out were the many indigenous speakers with whom we worked. There are many indigenous languages still spoken in Guatemala: Cristina and Dominique worked with about 5 clients who spoke either Mayan, Mam, Q’anjob’al, Q’iche’, and Ixil. These detainees are really at a disadvantage as it is very difficult for government officials and attorneys to find competent translators. Moreover, we learned that there are several dialects for Q’iche’ and often you need a translator who speaks that specific dialect! It proved very difficult to work with these indigenous speakers, as their Spanish was quite limited. We marveled that these fathers and sons were able to make the entire trek from Guatemala to the U.S. with such serious language barriers and feared that interpretation during critical interviews and court appearances would not be adequate. These men were truly inspiring.

The entire detention process for immigrants who express a fear of returning to their home countries seemed extreme and inhumane given the alarming stories we heard about the life of these detainees in their home countries. Everyone we talked to had fled some sort of violence and persecution and just wanted to live and work peacefully and honestly in the U.S. It was sad to realize that our asylum laws are not interpreted by judges to cover these types of cases; and many of these men and sons will eventually be deported back to sure violence and perhaps death. However, we felt we were able to truly assist the detainees during their detention at Karnes.

Our thanks to CLINIC for providing the funds for the trip, as well as RAICES for facilitating our work at Karnes. We would love to go back!

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