In recent years, the Executive Office of the United States has engaged in a series of unprecedented moves, making it extremely difficult for immigrants to apply for asylum. The directives from President Donald Trump serve to discourage immigrants from attempting to make the trip across the United States-Mexico border. For others, the directives serve as a stern warning.
On September 11, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered a disturbing decision, upholding the Trump Administration’s asylum rule affecting migrant entrants. In July 2019, the Trump Administration announced a policy banning migrants from seeking asylum if they transitioned through almost any third country on their way to the United States. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals offered some hope when they granted a preliminary injunction that temporarily barred enforcement of the asylum rule in some states like California and Arizona. However, the recent order from the Supreme Court overrides the temporary injunction granted by the federal court in California.
Immigrants who arrive at the southern border after July 16, 2019 will be deemed eligible for asylum only if they have (1) applied for and been denied asylum in another third country, (2) are victims of a severe form of trafficking, or (3) traveled through a country that does not adhere to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the corresponding 1967 Protocol, or the Convention Against Torture.
The decision upholding the asylum rule is a response to the emergency appeal filed by the Trump Administration. According to the Trump Administration, the temporary stay is necessary because “it alleviates a crushing burden on the U.S. asylum system by prioritizing asylum seekers who most need asylum in the United States.” University of Texas law professor, Stephen Vladeck, notes that the Trump Administration has applied for emergency stays at an unprecedented rate compared to the previous two administrations combined.
Although the Supreme Court’s decision was unexpected, the enforcement of the asylum rule is temporary. As Justice Sotomayor suggested in her dissenting opinion, we must wait for the legality of the asylum ban to move through the court system for a final decision. The Ninth Circuit is not alone in challenging the legality of the asylum ban. Previously, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia entertained a challenge to the asylum ban.
The recent temporary asylum rule is one of the mechanisms employed by the Trump Administration to implement its immigration agenda. Earlier this year, the Trump Administration began separating immigrant children and teenagers from their parents, holding them in overcrowded cages with no access to showers or a place to sleep. The government had previously allowed immigrant children to remain with one of their parents or caregivers, even if the family was separated at the border. But to separate children from all relatives is a new low for the Trump Administration.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE LARGEST IMMIGRANT DETENTION CENTER
In a town 75 miles way from the Texas-Mexico border, an immigrant detention center houses more than 1,300 women and children on any given day. Most of the women come from Central America, except for a few who come from Mexico or Cuba. The detention center is strategically and deliberately placed in the middle of nowhere, away from the suburbs of all nearby cities. I spent one week in Dilley and it was the longest week of my life. All volunteers spend one week in the detention center and they assist with preparing immigrant women for their credible fear interviews – a requirement for the asylum application process that is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.
What I saw in Dilley was disturbing and shocking to say the least. I will never forget their stories. A large billboard that says “South Texas Family Residential Center” greets incoming visitors as they pull into the parking lot. There is certainly nothing “familial” about the detention center, much less “residential.” The center resembled a camp. Barbed-wire fence surrounded the premises of the center. All visitors and volunteers go through an airport-style security checkpoint. All bags must be transparent and a portrait of President Trump greets visitors before walking into the legal-visitation trailer.
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon. After meeting the On-the-Ground team that spearheads the Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP), we attended a brief training session and met other volunteers. The work in Dilley is gruesome, physically and emotionally exhausting and heartbreaking. The system implemented by DPBP is efficient given the nature of the work. With horizontal representation, one attorney prepares the individual for their credible fear interview and the following week, another volunteer attorney picks up on the case. The detention center is one of the largest in the nation. Under the Flores decision, no detainee can be there for more than 20 days. The volunteers and legal team on the ground prepared on average about 100 women per day for their credible fear interviews. The warriors on the ground worked 12-15 hours per day.
We trekked into the legal-visitation trailer shortly after seven in the morning. I was required to remove one of the three layers I was wearing for a pat-down before entering the trailer. The cold January weather called for multiple layers of warm attire. The temperature inside the legal-visitation trailer is just as bad. The ice-cold air conditioners were blasting inside the trailer. The detained women were only allowed to enter through one door. Volunteers were not allowed to see the women or children once they left the legal-visitation trailer. If a detainee wants to see someone from the legal team, they must request a visit from a guard. The detainee is then given a specific time to go to the legal-visitation trailer while accompanied by a guard on duty.
We waited for the women and children to come inside the legal-visitation trailer. The women were scheduled to visit the volunteers in groups. I was nervous and distraught as the first group arrived. I sensed their fear and nervousness. Others showed no emotions. The women reminded me of my parents. Like the women and children housed in Dilley, my parents came to the United States to provide a better life for myself and my brothers. The women were scared to talk to the volunteers because they feared the volunteers were part of the system.
Maritza, whose real name I am not using to protect her identity, the mother of a three-year-old boy, was in an abusive relationship with her partner. The father of the child was “machista” and would brutally beat Maritza if she failed to keep the house clean or have dinner prepared for him once he returned home from work. At times, her partner would want to forcibly engage in sexual intercourse with Maritza and if she refused, he would slap her and beat her with whatever was at his disposal. Maritza’s partner would always humiliate her, calling her names and telling her that she was good for nothing. Maritza explained that one time her partner came home and the dinner was cold so he grabbed a frying pan that was sitting on the stove and swung it at her. The pan happened to have a bit of hot oil and some of it made it on Maritza’s arm. The scars on her arm are evidence of the incident which led to her decision to leave Honduras.
One of the many things I took away from Dilley is that there is still hope in humanity. It’s beautiful and fulfilling to see how a handful of volunteers came together to help these women and children. We were their only hope. For some of these women, it was their second or third try in the asylum application process. Some of these women traveled together and murmured quietly about their experience. Others only spoke in dialect and understood very little Spanish. Some of the younger children were clueless about what was going on. Others did not want to leave their mother’s side, even to play with other kids. A three-year-old boy had a thick, wet cough and the counselors (also known as “guards”) refused to provide medical attention to the child. It broke my heart to see the women and children in despair.
I was broken because it hurt to put each individual through so much pain. Every time we asked them to share their story, it was as if they were reliving their struggle all over again. At times, we would shed tears with them. I struggled to hold back tears. Shedding tears was a sign of solidarity. We stood with them. We were their hero and their only hope. I wanted to hug the children. Some of the women tried to hug us to thank us for our assistance but we were prohibited from engaging in physical contact.
How much longer will this continue and how far is the United States willing to go? The effects of President Trump’s immigration agenda are felt on the ground in the immigrant detention centers. Increased scrutiny in the asylum process is one of many tools the Trump Administration is using to deter migrants from seeking protection. Isolationism goes far beyond our borders. We should opt for a smarter approach to immigration policy rather than the standard “tough on immigration” approach that is likely to result in isolationism.