By Kathryn Shepherd and Royce Bernstein Murray
This report shows through the use of original testimony that the government’s reliance on “fast-track” deportation methods, such as expedited removal, in conjunction with detention often results in disadvantaging one of the most vulnerable groups of non-citizens currently in the U.S. immigration system: women and their children held in detention centers in rural, isolated locations in Texas and Pennsylvania.
Accounts from women and children detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, the country’s largest family detention center, illustrate the many obstacles a detained asylum seeker must overcome in order to obtain a meaningful day in court. The authors drew from a database of thousands of case files to identify families who experienced one or more of the challenges outlined in this paper.
Although many of the families whose stories are highlighted in this report were ultimately able to forestall immediate deportation with the assistance of legal counsel, all of them faced serious obstacles accessing the asylum process. Detained asylum seekers encounter numerous challenges, including the following problems detailed in this report.
- High Incidence of Psychological Trauma among Detainees
Many of the asylum-seeking women and children who are detained in Dilley experience psychological trauma as a result of their past persecution or fear of future persecution. This trauma is compounded by the experience of detention, the limited access to medical and psychological services in the detention center, and other policies outlined below.
- Separation of Family Members after Arriving at the Border
Current government policy mandates that women must be separated from their spouses, adult children, parents, siblings, and other family members before they are transferred to the detention center in Dilley, Texas. The emotional impact of family separation – and the possibility that a separated family member with the same claim for relief may be deported – may have a profound effect on the ability of a woman or child to testify during their fear interview with the asylum office or before the immigration court.
- Medical Conditions Adversely Impact the Ability to Pursue Protection
The women and children who are transferred to the detention center in Dilley suffer from a range of medical conditions. The prevalence of medical conditions may affect a worried mother’s ability to tell her story during her interview if her child is ill, or the sickness itself could affect a child or woman’s ability to articulate her story.
- Limited Access to Language Services
While the majority of families who are transferred to the detention center in Dilley speak Spanish, many do not. The languages spoken within the walls of the detention center in Dilley are diverse. Access to interpretation services is limited, which may present problems for women and children attempting to seek help at the medical clinic, ask questions about their legal cases, and, most importantly, undergo fear interviews with the asylum office or hearings with the immigration court.
- Complexity of the Legal Standard Applicable to Credible Fear Screenings
The immigration system is notoriously complicated, and the credible fear screening process is no exception. The legal standards to which asylum seekers are held are nuanced and complex, even for well-trained attorneys, let alone lay persons. Many of the factors outlined in this paper, including the prevalence of trauma and medical conditions, may further impede a person’s ability to understand the legal process and articulate a claim for protection.
- Procedural Defects in the Credible Fear Interview Process
The credible fear interview process is potentially rife with procedural errors. Asylum officers are required to conduct the interview in compliance with printed guidance and law, but occasionally fail to do so. For example, officers must ensure that an asylum seeker feels comfortable, ask sufficient follow up questions to reveal critical information in the person’s case, and evaluate a parent’s claim for protection separately from the child’s (and vice versa). However, an officer may not develop the rapport with the mother or child that is needed to fulfill these obligations. Such procedural pitfalls, and many others, may adversely affect the outcome of an asylum seeker’s claim.
While the voices in this report are predominantly of asylum-seeking mothers and their children from Central America and the surrounding region, the obstacles this population faces illustrate the high risk of error in asylum screenings for all noncitizens who are held in detention facilities around the country during their fast-track deportation proceedings.
Finally, the report looks at the critical role attorneys play in the cases of those who fail to pass their fear interview in the first instance due to one or several of the challenges highlighted above. The case stories illustrate how these pitfalls place families at risk of being returned to the very countries where they fear persecution.