Follow our team members as they get ready for and experience an exciting trip to Dilley, TX to help prepare detained women for their credible fear interviews, and check out WTHR.com's pre-trip and post-trip interviews with COIN Executive Director Julie Sommers Neuman and COIN volunteer interpreters Maria Pimental-Gannon and Suyapa Bender. For more information about the Dilley Pro Bono Project, visit the Immigration Justice Campaign or the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Our COIN-led team heads out on February 24. Let's go!
February 24, 2019 Dilley Day 1
Today was a long day of travel and meetings. Some of the COIN team came in last night, and some of us came in early this morning. (Three of us got up at 4:30 am!) We made a quick pit stop at The Alamo - which we will not forget! It was a beautiful, sunny day in San Antonio which was a nice break from our Indianapolis winter. We arrived in Dilley today in time to check in, put our bottled water in our rooms - we have enough to fill a swimming pool so we will not be thirsty - and get to our 5:00 pm orientation session.
The session included our group plus 14 other volunteers, mostly from Kansas City and St. Louis. The three Dilley Pro Bono Project staff were young and enthusiastic and had lots and lots and lots of information to share with us . . . till 9:30 pm. They also fed us delicious pasta, salad and cookies. :)
The presentation was very in-depth about the process the detainees have been through before their arrival at the detention facility in Dilley. The women either came through a port of entry and asked for asylum or came by foot or car across the border and were apprehended by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). They have probably been in the country for 72+ hours at two prior facilities before they arrive at Dilley. Once they arrive at the Dilley detention facility they have to be given their Credible Fear Interview (CFI) within 20 days if they are traveling with children per the Flores Agreement.
All new arrivals will be given their first charla (chat) at 8:15 am explaining the asylum process. We will observe the first charla and then some of our interpreters will present the remaining four charlas for the day and the five daily charlas for remainder of the week. Forty CFI Preparations are planned for tomorrow so we will then begin meeting one-on-one with clients to prepare them for CFI's that are scheduled later in the week.
There are several CFI's tomorrow with asylum officers for clients who met with last week's volunteers. We each will get to observe one. Although we won't have prepared the client for their CFI, we will meet with them 30 minutes prior to the CFI to review their case with them. At the conclusion of the CFI we will report back to the Dilley PBP staff with our recommendations for the closing statement for the client. It will be a busy and interesting first day of "work" for us. We were all a little blurry-eyed after the meeting but confident we will figure it out as the week progresses.
Thanks for your support and for following our blog. We will send more thoughts after our first day!
-Julie Sommers Neuman
February 25, 2019 Dilley Day 2
Our first day in the detention center in Dilley!
We all arrived at the detention center at 7:30 am to be met by a long security line to enter. It is just like the airport with emptying pockets and trays through the xray machine. We turn in our ID’s and get a badge saying “Volunteer #”. I was #26 by the time I got through the line.
After you exit the first “check in” trailer, you walk across an outdoor ramp into the detention center. There are guards at that desk that check you in. That is the only door volunteers can enter or leave, and you have to ask before they “check you out”. It definitely feels like a prison.
The Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP) is all in one large trailer . . . like a pole barn . . . if you know what that is (I didn’t). The women and children come in from the opposite end of the trailer which is where the rest of the Detention Center is. We can only see our trailer and the Asylum Office trailer where we are allowed to go for the asylum hearings.
By 8:00 am we had been through a quick tour, and the women and children began arriving for the first charla/meeting. They wear uniforms – bright color sweatshirts, jeans, tennis shoes and puffy coats – from the youngest to the oldest. They are brought in in groups, and it takes them quite a while to check in at their door.
Once in they gather in large groups in a circle to meet with a staff or volunteer for the group charla – explaining the US legal process for asylum – including charts and graphics. I was struck immediately with two things: how tired the women look – even though most seem to be 20’s-40’s, every one of them looks so weary – and the resilience of the children. They range from toddlers to teens, and while they, too, look weary, they can’t help but smiling at you if you give them a smile. They are beautiful.
Our day was spent meeting one-on-one with the women to prepare them for the Credible Fear Interviews later in the week or meeting with them for 30 minutes prior to their interview. We accompanied some women who were prepped last week or before to their interviews. At the interview we are able to take notes and in no way advocate for the client.
The interview I sat through was 2.5 hours and grueling for the client who had to recount her sexual abuse and death threats in Honduras. She was brave and did so well telling the most horrific things that she had endured.
Last night we had a quick meeting just after we left the facility (at 6:30 pm) to recap our day. The DPBP has served 2,500 women (times at least 2 since each has a minimum of one child traveling with them) since the beginning of 2019. Last year they helped 16,700 mothers plus at least that many children. It is an amazing program.
Off we go to Day 2 at the center.
-Julie Sommers Neuman
It was a day full of emotions: not knowing what to expect, just learning how the program works, which questions to ask, who to go to for legal advice, and which answers to give when a client asks. I learned by hands-on practice! Each day is a different day with new clients; I show them where to sign if they just came in [the detention center] the evening before. I am busy every day, from giving the charlas to helping with the next step filling out the form for CoreCivic and answering questions in-between.
For me, personally, it is so emotional because, I will say, 90% of the immigrants are Honduran. We start each morning at 7:30 till everything is done, or it seems and feels like it. I wonder how CoreCivic keeps track of all the people who come every day. Each day is a long one, but I am very satisfied.
February 26, 2019 Dilley Day 3
We stayed last night till 7:58 - they close at 8:00 pm. It was tiring, but we feel like we are really helping. I only cried once yesterday. I met mostly with women from Honduras where the narcotraffickers or gangs control entire towns, and the police are either paid off by them or afraid of them. The issues in El Salvador and the other Central American countries are as bad or worse as well.
We are staying positive because of the gratitude we get from each women, whether during the preps or just the smiles when we say hello and ask how they are. And the children . . . their resilience is amazing.
-Julie Sommers Neuman
Yesterday was really exhausting. These women are amazing and strong. I met with 5 clients all from Honduras, and many have experienced abuse as have their children. I feel good about being able to participate in this project to help these women have a better chance of gaining asylum for themselves and their children. The one things that struck me yesterday was a 14-year old boy who was so traumatized by his experience that he could barely talk about the experience. We are all worn out but staying positive. and we have each other.
My experience has been eye-opening about what is going on in Central America -- Honduras and Guatemala. The violence permeates everything and every reason for coming here.
Today my emotions took over. I started crying, just seeing women and their children every morning, who are waiting for hours to get help and who are asking questions about their cases. I did intake charlas by myself, and I said "Oh boy, can I, can I do it?" A lady with CoreCivic said "You can do it."
So, I introduced myself, saying "My name is Suyapa Bender y soy Hondureña." (My name is Suyapa Bender, and I am Honduran.) Just by saying that, I could see the difference in their faces from that moment on. They called me by 'Lic' which is short for 'Licenciada.' Later on, I told them that I'm not a lawyer, but I can be whatever they want me to be for them: tu abogada, doctor, amiga... They laughed and told me I look like one. We left it that way and used it as a joke to relax them and make them laugh. I continued with my charlas, and in between charlas, I interpreted for all who needed my help. I worked with Mrs. Donna, Mrs. Julie, Mr. Jack, Mrs. Lindsey, Mrs. Mira, a lawyer named Chris, and Mason, who helped a lot to find out about family members that the clients have not heard from. I don't know where [Chris and Mason] are from, either Kansas or Missouri, but we helped each other in whatever ways we could. I enjoyed it, and just helping the immigrants is the most gratifying .
February 27, 2019 Dilley Day 4
Half-way There, Half-way to Go . . . Thoughts of a Humble Servant
Sigh. It is a bittersweet time here in Dilley, Texas. Beautiful children. Wearisome moms. Heart-breaking stories. Overwhelming sense of sadness. Long days. Short nights. Tears freely flowing. Smothered sobs. Feelings of fruitfulness. Hope-filled, tear-stained eyes, filled with determination and strength. So much to take in, so much to try to remember . . . every smile of gratitude, every handshake that had to substitute for a much-needed and much-desired hug.
These were the first three days at this Dilley facility. We arrived as a team and our team quickly grew as we met staff and other volunteers from other areas/states. Strangers became friends. Each person/family we met came in as a stranger and left feeling like family, a loved one for whom we would do anything to lighten their burden, ease their memories of terror and nightmares and just hug them, hold them close, and tell the everything would be all right.
These are the memories that will remain in our minds for a very long time. These are the memories of an experience of a life-time. These are the memories we will have to remind us that for a moment in time we were used for a greater purpose, to bring hope and light to a long-suffering people, and to help us remember what privileged lives we ourselves lead, no matter our own circumstances.
Our minds are tired, but it feels so good to serve in this way. Having to think in two or three languages has been a true challenge, but one for which I am so grateful. We’ve learned so very much, particularly about immigration law. However, I believe that one of the greatest things we have learned is compassion and gratitude . . . we had the privilege of showing our compassion for these women and children who were seeking asylum, fleeing from deplorable conditions and indescribable fears, while our own gratitude for our freedom, rights, independence, possessions, opportunities, etc., etc. grew and were strengthened.
This experience has been a treasure. It has been an experience of a life-time. No doubt many of us will never be the same after Dilley. We will be changed men and women. We will always have to remember, gratefully, that “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” and continue on with a renewed attitude of gratitude.
Things are getting familiar for me as the week has been "go, go, go." Listening to each one of [the women] tell their story makes you feel chills on your back, from a mild story to someone who told me that her beautiful daughter almost drowned. She said "My life stopped for a minute. Thank God my girl was found!" I asked one of the CoreCivic people who watches the kids while the mother goes to the appointment, and her answer was the mothers. They used to have child care when Obama was in the White House, but since then, ICE removed the childcare!
We did so many CFIs with the lawyers. I had the opportunity to go with our clients to the appointment with the Immigration Officer the first time, and I tell you, the officer was very intimidating and made me very nervous.
My stomach was in knots, but once I was there, I was not turning back. The experience has been great. The guards are very serious, not a smile. I noticed that throughout the week, the women and children feel more comfortable, they've relaxed, and they trust us. Even some kids come to us to hug us sometimes, but that is not acceptable in the center. I don't understand why, but rules are rules. We love to hug and kiss, but instead I winked at them and shook their hands while sharing all so that I could see they were feeling good. With a lot of optimism, I told them to never lose hope: "All of you come this far. It is not bad to wait a bit longer."
I made a mistake in asking a guard a question first. She didn't have the answer, and then a CoreCivic lady came to me and said "you do not ask questions to the guards because they don't know." She was right, but I didn't know that as I was still learning. There was also an incident when CFI prep talked to a CoreCivic person. [The CoreCivic person] directed me to send them to have a seat. She then got in my personal space, and said "Did you send them to sit down to wait?" I reminded her that she had told me to do so, and then she composed her self and said "yeah, that's right." Little things like that make me wonder if their job is so stressful that they don't know if they are coming or going, but at the end, they get their bearings together.
February 28, 2019 Dilley Day 5
Today CBS News published an article discussing a complaint filed this afternoon by the American Immigration Council, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Catholic Immigration Network, Inc. to the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General and Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties regarding the detention of babies under the age of 1 in Dilley, TX. Our COIN volunteers currently in Dilley are helping to track that information for the Dilley Pro Bono Project, and that information was used to help file this complaint. You can read the news article from CBS News here and the article from The Guardian here, and you can find AIC, AILA and CIN's letter here. COIN is proud to be a part of these efforts.
-Coalition for Our Immigrant Neighbors
Amazing Grace, how sweet though art… On Sunday, March 24, 2019, a team of 15 attorneys and interpreters gathered together to begin what would be one of the most amazing and grace-filled experiences of a lifetime. Unsure of all that was ahead of us, but certain that we were ready for the journey, we sat with anticipation as we were oriented by the staff of the CARA Pro Bono Project on what we could expect and what would be expected of us throughout the entire week while we worked on the Project.
Long days and short nights were what awaited us, but it was what would be taking place between those long days that was our motivation for being part of this experience. It was what made our tired feet, our reeling heads, our aching bodies, the living-out -of-a-suitcase for a week routine, the fast foods, and any other inconvenience we might have to endure worth every moment.
We were going to have the opportunity to make one of the most important differences in the lives of “as many women as we can work with each day” possible. We were going to have the privilege and the satisfaction of preparing as many women as possible for one of the most important and life-changing interviews they would ever have in their lives.
That seems like so long ago now, and at the same time, it seems like only yesterday that we embarked on this “forever in our minds and in our hearts” experience. And tomorrow we will once again, perhaps for the last time ever, walk through the security doors of that detention center to enter one last time into the lives of as many women and families as possible. Friday will truly be a bittersweet time for all of us.
It has been the experience of a lifetime. It will forever be etched in our minds and in our memories. It has been a sobering experience. It has been an experience sprinkled with laughter, with tears, with sadness, with immense joy, and with endless highs and lows. It has been an experience filled with grace-filled memories. And for me and my husband, who had friends and family who partnered with us through prayer and monetarily to make it possible for us to come to Dilley to help and to try to be that change in the world we want to see, it takes the word and the concept of gratitude to a whole new level. We shall forever be grateful to those friends and family who made a difference in the lives of the people whose lives we personally touched through their prayer and their monetary support and partnership. May God multiply their blessings for their generosity and their kindness.
As this week, and hence this chapter in our lives, draws to a close, one thing is for certain. The lives of all have been changed.…those who were helping, and those who were being helped. Those of us who came as strangers, and those of us who are leaving as friends. Those who work hard at getting each family out as quickly as possible, and those whose job it is to secure the facility, keeping watch over everything and everyone that goes in and goes out.
Tomorrow, when the door bangs shut behind us for the last time, we will walk away with the greatest and the most rewarding fatigue we could ever experience. We will walk away knowing that we did our very best, believing that God will do the rest. And I feel great and humble confidence that at the end of this week, the good Lord would tell each one of us volunteers, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
[This day was] a very busy one. Time is running out for us. We are full of excitement and have a lots of appointments, some with good news and some bad, but the best of all is seeing those ladies with a smile on their faces coming to us and saying "I just signed the release." To hear that was music to our ears. There are a lot of Garifunas and indigenous people from Ecuador and Guatemala with different dialects who have been released. They came and asked me "What is next?" I told them to just wait for family or a friend to pay the bond. At least 20 or so women have told me that they've sign a release form. I am so excited for them. Then more women came to me, asking why her friends are leaving soon and not them. I told them that it is luck, but to be happy for them. They said "We are." I reassured them that their time will come but they shouldn't stop signing the sign-in sheet. The more they sign, the more likely that ICE will see that they're on top of finding out about their cases.
March 1, 2019 Dilley Day 6
While the days have seemed to last forever, the week has absolutely flown by. Today is our last day of work at Dilley. We all gathered at 8:15 pm last night to share ups and downs of the week and ideas for staying involved ... more to come on that later.
The ups were many . . . one woman received a positive credible fear interview result and raised her arms and said, "God is good!" Another was able to find out that her 7 year-old sister that she had traveled with but was separated from has been located and is safe. A woman from Democratic Republic of Congo received news that she will be released with her two-year-old son and will join her husband and older son soon. One woman spoke on the phone with her father in Honduras and was in tears just to be able to tell him that she is safe.
The downs include the horror stories of the sexual assaults, gang violence, and endless days of travel through many countries to come here to find safety. Others include the treatment they received upon arrival at our border. My saddest moment today was hearing seeing a 19-year old mother who is on suicide watch due to the trauma she has endured.
But we still are helping each woman, one at a time, to get the legal services that she deserves so that she can tell her story of why she is seeking asylum in our country. The meetings can take an hour or some take all day before the women feel safe enough to share their stories. Their lack of trust with a government being able to protect them is apparent in every single one. I explained to one young woman today that in our country men are not allowed to treat women as property or hit them, and she was in disbelief. We citizens of the US are so fortunate.
Here's to our last day in Dilley!
-Julie Sommers Neuman
There are many sources for awe, inspiration, frustration, hope and joy that we have contact with each hour of each day. I am proud and pleased that we can show essential hospitality to the women and their children who have faced such difficult and traumatic circumstances. We are offering listening, support, and a pathway for a better future. Uniformly, each woman is a mother who is totally motivated to support their child or children and provide an opportunity for education and a better, safer life. So much more to share, but the women are an incredible source for inspiration and growth and possibility for our country and our communities.
At the end of the journey, I saw the need for help definitely on a daily basis while keeping track of who's coming, who's been released, childcare, etc. Sometimes there are clients who have been there for the intake more than three times, so I asked them why. They said that if 1 or 2 clients missed the charla, they send notifications to all of the women instead of just the ones who missed the intake! I heard from some of the clients that they'd gone to the guards to ask questions, but the guards told them not to bother them because they have been here for maybe 3 to 6 months and have been crying so hard. I told them that it is their right to ask but to come to the office or to CoreCivic because they are in charge of helping them and their needs in the legal matter. I had quite a few cases of filling out a form for the clients to ICE Asylum saying "I have been here for more than 2 weeks and have not heard anything about my case, and I would like to find out about it." After that, [CoreCivic] told me to tell [the women] to put it in a mail box by their dorm. I asked myself if those forms would really get to the hands of the ICE officers!
To close the chapter and experience was an eye-opener for me in how legal immigrants come to the USA and risk their families' lives, young kids and children. To my COIN group: God bless you all for your generosity, for giving your time and expertise in immigration law and for letting me be part of a wonderful program. Some of the Guards asked me if I would do it again, would I like to do this job. To answer: I would do it again and again. I believe in women's and families' rights. Keep me on your list.
March 2, 2019 Dilley Departure and Post-Dilley Thoughts
Gise and I went to the Greyhound bus station this morning to see the women and kids who were “getting out of Dodge/Dilley”! It was such a great way to end. We passed out the letters Julie gave us written in Spanish by the women and children from Shepherd Community Center in Indianapolis. The women were so appreciative. They all had huge smiles on their faces. It was amazing to see these women and kids on the other side. There was one family that Gise had actually worked with this week to tell the mother's story, and her little girl could not stop hugging us!
A note of good news....none of the women released today had ankle monitors! There was one man there with a little boy from a different center, and he did have the monitor on. There is a volunteer group down there that sits there all day with them, helping them figure out their bus tickets and distributing backpacks with crayons, food for their journey, personal hygiene products, etc. They are called the Interfaith Welcome Coalition if you have any interest in making a donation.
And to come full circle, we recognized two asylum officers that are on our plane and asked them a ton of questions. They were pretty guarded in their answers but they said they were glad we were there accompanying the women.
That’s all we’ve got! Hope everyone finds their favorite thing to do this weekend to decompress! It was so great meeting and working with all of you!
Xoxo -Debbie Kasle and Gise Terner
Our job doesn’t end! There are a few families here at the airport. The flight from Dallas is delayed so many will miss connections. Gise is trying to help them figure it out. Also, they have no money, so we just gave them money to get food!
And bringing in the rear . . . If I am not mistaken, Jack and I are the last ones to return to Indianapolis from our Dilley trip. Perhaps some of our team members are already in bed, perhaps others are trying to unwind and are continuing to process all that took place since last Sunday. Could it be that a whole week has gone by? Time happened so quickly, while at the same time it seemed to be standing still. It feels like a lifetime ago that our plane was landing in San Antonio, our connecting city to Dilley. At the same time, as I write this entry while on the airplane ride back to Indy, I feel like I am on my flight getting ready to begin my experience, not completing it.
There was an Argentinean woman on the flight from San Antonio to Dallas. We spoke to each other when we each were trying to help a former Dilley detention center resident, who was on her way to the start of her new life in her new country. Interestingly, both she and the Argentinean woman shared a derivative of the same name: Celestina . . . beautiful name for two beautiful ladies.
I will have to say that it was definitely a divine appointment to meet Celestina from Argentina. We have a standing invitation to visit one another. We discovered we have a lot in common, beginning with our faith and our love of family and our children. We bid each other farewell in Dallas, and unfortunately, neither one of us was able to find the Honduran Celestina. But even so, God allowed me to see one of the families whom we had helped and I cannot begin to say the joy I felt at knowing another one had made it out of there . . . and without an ankle bracelet. She took my business card and will connect with me after she returns from seeing her mother, who by the way, is quite ill. I will be keeping them in my prayers!
It feels surreal to be back in Indy. Tomorrow I will go back to my schedule of working with the Sunday School program, teaching my three-hour faith development class and going to my Bible Study in the evening. But one thing is for certain, I will do the things I usually do, but not in the same way, for I my life has been changed. I am still reflecting on these changes, and my guess is that I (we) will be doing that for a long time.
In the meantime, I will look forward to the next time the Lord takes me to Dilley. And until then, I will relish the memories of all the good times and the not-so-good times that we lived in Dilley. In particular, I will remember the times we were able to listen to one another on our team, to cry together, to comfort one another, to make new friends, and to relish the wonderful opportunity for those of us who already knew each other, to get to know each other even better.
Aimee, I trust you are enjoying your little one, giving him all the hugs and kisses we were unable to give the little ones in Dilley. Chris, please make that call ASAP. Julie and all of COIN, thanks for making it possible for us to have an impact of a life-time on others, as well as for us to be impacted by these amazing women and families, giving us memories for a life-time. My dear, dear team members and all of you who took the time to read our blogs and to live this amazing experience vicariously, may God be with you ALWAYS!
Love, peace and joy,
To experience our trip with us, follow COIN on social media!