Editor’s note: This piece contains descriptions of sexual assault.
I’M NERVOUS as I pull into the parking lot outside the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. I take a few minutes to review the packet of training materials sitting on the passenger seat of my rental car one last time: instructions, sample questions, and consent forms from American Gateways, a Texas-based nonprofit that provides immigration and asylum legal services throughout the region. As an attorney focused on mortgage fraud, I don’t know much about immigration issues beyond what I’ve read in the news over the past year—children caged and families separated. The materials in the packet highlight recent policy changes I need to be aware of for my conversations with the occupants of this all-women’s detention center. Over the next four days, I’m set to interview 12 asylum seekers, with the goal of helping each woman pass her credible fear interview, a preliminary hearing with an asylum officer that often results in immediate deportation.
I see Lilah—one of the two other volunteer attorneys in my cohort—pull up, and I get out of the car to greet her. I stare up at the facility—a stout, looming structure set against the vast Texas sky—and try not to let it intimidate me. It’s September 2018, almost ten years since Hutto ceased operation as the largest family detention center, after the ACLU successfully negotiated with the Obama administration’s ICE officials to deem the former medium-security prison unfit to house children. Even after it was converted to a women-only facility, Hutto had not escaped further controversy, with female occupants reporting rampant sexual abuse by guards under both the Obama and Trump administrations. As recently as late 2017, civil rights groups were suing CoreCivic, the multibillion dollar private prison contractor that operates the facility on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, after an asylum-seeking detainee cited nearly five months of sexual abuse from a female guard. She was still working at the facility when I arrived.
After ten minutes, Mona, the last volunteer, arrives; we all lock our phones in our cars—CoreCivic forbids taking them into the facility—before venturing inside. We hand the guard our IDs, bar memberships, and a piece of paper listing the names of the women we’re scheduled to meet with today. We pass through the metal detectors and wait for another guard to lead us further into the facility. In the main corridor we notice a wall of portraits of the corporate executives of CoreCivic. We make our way past these and into the visitor’s area, which looks like a community center rec room if all the ping pong tables were repossessed; two nonfunctional vending machines sit silently in the corner by the on-duty supervisor’s desk. The area smells of old snack food and cleaning products. In the middle of the room, there’s an array of sea foam green rubber couches and chairs; a few women sit there, some expectantly awaiting visitors, while others talk quietly among themselves.
The guard leaves us with the supervisor, who takes our list of names and uses her walkie-talkie to call down our first interviewees. She motions us toward the linoleum and plexiglass penalty boxes that border the room. Lilah, Mona, and I each enter our respective enclosures, which feature a desk, two plastic chairs, and a phone. The setup is hardly designed for privacy. The plexiglass barriers between us do not continue all the way up to the ceiling, and voices carry, which we learn after making concurrent calls to the interpreter service American Gateways contracts with to perform these interviews. It’s clear that the three of us will have to modulate our voices so as not to disturb one another—a task made more difficult by the need to enunciate for the interpreter over a shoddy speaker phone.
“Well this is less than ideal,” says Mona. We give each other one final look as our first clients file in.
My first client is Yazmine*, a 20-year-old from Honduras, dressed in detention center scrub pants and a yellow t-shirt worn backwards with the tag cut out. It takes about 20 minutes to assure her that I’m not a government agent, that I won’t share any of this information with one, and that the translator on speaker phone isn’t one either. “In a few days, you will go before an asylum officer,” I explain through the translator. “This officer will ask you questions about why you have come to the United States to seek asylum. If you pass the interview, you will likely be released from the detention center and can remain in the United States as your immigration case moves forward. If you do not pass the interview, you will either remain in a detention facility while you appeal your case to an immigration court, or you will be sent directly back to your country of origin. Do you understand?”
I repeat this question—Do you understand?—every time the interpreter finishes the extended legal explanation I’ve prepared for each client’s unique situation. It feels strange to keep asking this, considering I’ve just barely begun understanding any of it myself. With new edicts coming nearly every week from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department, even groups like American Gateways are struggling to keep up. Most pertinent to our work was Sessions’s introduction, back in June, of new standards for asylum seekers. Previously, a threat or history of gang-related violence or domestic abuse was considered sufficient to establish that the asylum seeker had a credible fear of persecution and thus deserved asylum. But Sessions, directly intervening in the case of a Salvadoran woman known as A-B, had overruled a Board of Immigration Appeals’ precedent and decreed that asylum officers should consider neither gang-related violence nor domestic abuse as grounds for asylum. Such cases could now be considered grounds for expedited removal from the United States, effectively denying asylum seekers the chance to have their claims adjudicated in court. In that same opinion, Sessions specified that asylum officers should take into consideration whether or not the asylum seeker can internally relocate within their home country without fear of persecution; the asylum seeker has a burden of proof to establish that a relocation would not be reasonable.
This was only the latest move in the Trump administration’s sustained assault on the rights of asylum seekers. In February 2017, the administration expanded the role of the credible fear interview in the asylum-seeking process. Previously, asylum officers merely decided that the asylum seeker passed the credible fear interview, or else recommended that their case be adjudicated by an immigration court. But now, the administration had directed officers either to find that a credible fear of persecution has been substantiated, or else to decide in favor of expedited removal. Essentially, Sessions had deputized these DHS officers, with the immigration judges at DOJ serving simply to rubber stamp the whole sordid process.
“She says that she understands,” says the translator.
Yazmine nods when I ask her if there is a specific reason that she fears returning to her home country. For an hour and a half, she tells me about the police chief in her town: how he enlisted her and her sister as sex slaves, flying them by helicopter to the home of the city’s most notorious drug dealer. Yazmine fled after the chief took her out of her house one night to show her the body of her sister, sitting upright in the back of his police car. The police had killed her for refusing to sleep with the drug dealer.
“Is this a powerful drug dealer?” I ask. I’m horrified at the revelation, but also find myself pleased that this situation may constitute a sufficient case for asylum. It’s unsettling to jump right to this thought, but it’s also why I’m here.
“If you returned home, would he be able to find you?”
“How do you know?”
“When they killed my sister, the police chief gave us her body to bury. In my city, the cemetery for the poor is outside of the city, far away. To get there, my brother and I had to pass many police checkpoints, where they always examine the contents of the car. But on this night, all of the police checkpoints waved us through. The police chief and drug dealer are very powerful—they told them to let us go.”
The passage of a credible fear interview is linked to whether Yazmine can prove that returning to her country of origin would be life-threatening. As we wrap up our session, I tell Yazmine how important it is that she offer up specifics to the extent that she knows them. The name of the drug dealer and the police chief are important. I tell Yazmine that she must tell the officer in explicit terms what will happen to her if she returns: that she will be killed like her sister. She should tell the officer about the drive to the cemetery, which affirmed for her that the police chief is powerful throughout the country, making both in-country relocation and potential assistance from the Honduran government impossible. I ask if she understands; she says she does. I let her know that given her trauma, she can request to be interviewed by a female officer if it makes her more comfortable. She nods and says thank you. I wish her luck as she leaves.
By the time I finish meeting with the next two women, one from Honduras and another from El Salvador, I’ve spent seven hours inside the 8’ x 8’ enclosure; I’m antsy to get out of Hutto. Mona and Lilah have been gone for at least 30 minutes. I return to my car and turn on my phone to find I’ve missed a few texts telling me to head out to El Corral Lozano, the large Mexican restaurant on the road out of Taylor, where Mona and Lilah are having a drink. As I enter, I notice an anti-detention center flyer posted on the door by Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit committed to ridding Williamson County of Hutto.
Over gorditas, queso, and beer, we recap what our clients have told us. Lilah is an immigration attorney with her own practice. She mostly works on employment-based immigration issues, but she still knows much more than we do about how the credible fear process has changed over the past four years. “There used to be a much lower bar,” she tells us. “An asylum seeker would only need to demonstrate a significant possibility that a credible fear exists. Then in 2014, the rules changed to require a more specific substantiation of that fear. But still, asylum officers were instructed to defer to a positive credible fear interview outcome. Now, you have to link your fear to the state, to specific state action or inaction. It’s a much harder standard to meet.”
By the time we’ve discussed all of our cases, we’ve all been crying—and laughing, too, in that bleak, supportive way. We tell each other what brought us to Central Texas. The news of family separations, and kids in cages. But we’re also motivated by family history: Lilah and I are Jewish—my grandparents were German Jews aided by HIAS after the war—and Mona is a Palestinian American whose parents fled refugee camps in Lebanon.
I think back to Yazmine’s case. I should have emphasized that she should tell the asylum officer about what happened when she sought to file a report with the morgue after her sister’s death, how she was told to drop the inquiry entirely if she knew what was best for her. This detail would have helped her prove the impossibility of seeking assistance from Honduran law enforcement. “You guys, we have three more days of this,” says Mona, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it.”
“NEXT ONE is ready,” says the CoreCivic supervisor. She wears strange black gloves that none of the other guards have on. “A218436536, in that chair over there,” she says, gesturing to a woman in purple scrubs. It’s my third day at Hutto.
A218436536 is Diana, a 37-year-old Cuban national, who has been at Hutto for the past ten days after declaring asylum at the US–Mexico border. She was most recently living in Mexico on a spousal student visa with her husband—also Cuban—who was earning his Master’s degree in Mexico City, but they had returned to Cuba to obtain divorce papers; at the time, she was pregnant. Diana, the daughter of a political dissident, was visiting relatives when the police came to their house and took her into custody. At the station, the police threw her into solitary confinement and raped and beat her. She spent several days in the hospital; she required surgery to repair her badly-beaten breasts. She lost her pregnancy. She believes that returning to Cuba will be a death sentence. Listening to her story, I believe that Diana will be one of the “lucky” ones. With relatives in Florida, and as a refugee from communist Cuba—a circumstance long-favored in American immigration policy—it seems that, of all the women I interview, Diana will have the best shot of staying in the US.
I get out earlier than expected that day, so I meet Mona and Lilah at a coffee shop instead of our usual taco happy hour. They’re entering their client information and case synopses into the online portal American Gateways uses to track each client. The organization attempts to pair asylum seekers with lawyers from its network of attorneys; if they can procure representation, it helps to have the full story, since attorney participation on behalf of the client is kept to a minimum during both appeals and the credible fear interviews themselves. I’ve been filling out my synopses back at the hotel—my notes spread out over half the couch, while I spend hours putting together what I hope will be a helpful narrative.
Over much-needed double espressos, we discuss what’s been working in the sessions, trying to help each other. Did you ask her about this? See, the way I’ve been approaching it is to . . . I tried that today, thanks, I just wish I’d done that on day one. We discuss the controversy of that morning: It seemed some of the women we advised had already sat for their credible fear interviews hours before we arrived. The guards must have tipped off DHS to our presence—a gross violation of international law that only makes sense if you understand it as an act of intentional cruelty.
Still, we met with our clients as planned. At the coffee shop, we talk about the women we saw that day. Mona met with a student from Nicaragua who’d been expelled from school for protesting a government rally. “I don’t know if that’s going to be enough,” she says.
Lilah tells us about one of her clients, an Indigenous woman from Guatemala who spoke a rare language and scant Spanish. “She has a good case,” she says, “but with the language barrier, I’m just not sure she’ll be able to communicate it in her interview.”
After three days, when we talk about our clients, no one cries.
ON THE FINAL DAY, I meet with a Honduran woman named Alicia, a Cuban national named Marissa, and Betsy, a 20-year-old dancer from Honduras. Betsy begins the interview by telling me how members of her dance troupe hired a man to stalk her on Facebook and WhatsApp, calling her racist names and messaging her with threats. They didn’t like that a Black girl like Betsy was one of the best dancers in the group; the man said if she didn’t quit, there would be a price to pay. Whenever she left her mother’s house, where she was living with her grandmother and four other siblings, there he was, sitting on his motorcycle. She never saw his face or found out his name. Eventually, Betsy was fired from the dance troupe. She fled the country with another friend from the group who had likewise been targeted because of her race.
“Besides the Facebook and WhatsApp stalking and waiting outside your mother’s house, did he do anything else?” I ask. “Did he ever threaten you with specific violence in person?”
“No. Just online. My mom also started getting threats along with my brother and sister. They said it would rain blood and that I would wake up in a coffin if I didn’t get out of the country.”
“Did you ever see this man holding any kind of a weapon? A knife or a gun?”
“No, but he would pass by my house every day”
I try another approach. In credible fear exams, asylum officers try to determine whether asylum seekers were targeted because of their religion, nationality, political beliefs, or race. “Can you recall another specific instance where you were harmed because of your race?” I ask.
“Yes. About four years ago, these girls I was friends with just started beating me because I’m Black.”
“They called you names?”
“Your injuries, were they serious?”
“Um, they were not bad.”
“Did you go to the hospital?”
“I’m sorry to ask you these questions . . . but can you tell me about the injuries?”
“I was hit in the face. My nose was broken. I was struck in the stomach. Several broken ribs.”
“How long were you in the hospital?”
Betsy pauses and answers. “One week,” I hear the translator say.
“Terrible,” is all I can manage.
“I don’t understand why the color of my skin makes me this way to people,” she says. “No one has ever thought I was cool.”
“I don’t understand either. I think you’re pretty cool.” I realize how uncool this must sound to her—a 33-year-old stranger in a polyester golf polo shirt speaking through a translator on speaker phone in the middle of a detention center. She gives a polite nod.
I tell her I don’t think the Facebook and WhatsApp harassment, even coupled with the physical stalking outside of her house, will be enough for her to pass her credible fear examination. Without knowing the name of the stalker, whether he was affiliated with a gang or law enforcement, or any direct physical altercation, it would be hard to meet the specifications of the new rubric. “But,” I say, “based on what we just discussed, I think you have a credible fear of returning to Honduras. You were hospitalized from a hate crime in 2013, and you were fired from your dance group this past summer, so this is clearly part of a larger story—a sustained pattern of racism against you as a Black woman living in Honduras. You need to communicate to the asylum officer that you have no choice, as a Black woman, but to live and work in the United States. If you can communicate this, I think you have a very good chance of remaining here.” I’m trying to be optimistic, though I know that Betsy’s case is still a longshot.
After our final interviews, Lilah, Monah, and I go to a barbecue joint in town, and try to process it all. “I don’t know if I want to know the outcomes for my clients,” I tell them. “Maybe someday I’ll ask American Gateways. But I need some time.”
Mona asks if we think any of our work has helped our clients. Or has it only helped streamline things for the asylum officers, who can now more quickly work through their quota of asylum denials on a particular day? I tell Mona I don’t know the answer to her question.
I’m thinking instead of the look on Alicia’s face when I told her just hours ago that she might get to leave Hutto. She’s only 20 years old, a victim of sexual assault; her boyfriend handcuffed her to her bed every day with nothing more than a glass of water and a bucket before leaving for his job as a police officer. I stressed to her that the fact of his occupation is very advantageous to her proving a credible fear, and told her to bring it up as often as possible in her interview. What I couldn’t bring myself to tell her was how it will probably play out, that the DHS officer will likely determine that her boyfriend doesn’t rank high enough in the police department to keep Alicia from requesting help from the authorities, or relocating within Honduras. How can I look at the new, white scars on her wrists, where the handcuffs dug into the skin, and tell her that more likely than not, she will soon be sent back to the site of her trauma?
We do not know at the time that in less than three months Sessions will resign, and a month later, these domestic violence guidelines will be struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge. By that time, more likely than not, Alicia will already be back in Honduras. In September 2019, the injunction forbidding the Executive Branch from asserting these overly broad powers will be overturned by the conservative Supreme Court. In June 2020, the Court will rule in a 7–2 decision that unlike noncitizens already living in the United States, asylum seekers do not have constitutional due process protections. I told Alicia that she has a chance—she just has to tell them everything she just told me. Use specifics, names and dates and times, so you can relate how immediate your fear was when you left Honduras. I told her that they’re going to ask questions meant to throw her off, to force her to make mistakes so the asylum officer can call for her expedited removal. I told her I’m sorry. But before she leaves this plexiglass enclosure, she needs to know it’s possible—she just needs to tell her story. Even false hope is hope, and today, that will have to do.
*The names of the asylum seekers have been changed.
Michael Lieberman is an attorney and writer living in Maryland. His first novel is Sushi in Ramallah. You can find him on Instagram @michaeldlieberman.