The Women and Children of Dilley, Part Three
- By Katherine Silver
Before traveling to Dilley, I could not help but think of Oświęcim, the town that hosted the camp we know of as Auschwitz. I thought of the scene in Shoah when Lanzmann interviews a group of local residents about what they knew about the camp, about their neighbors who had disappeared, how he drew out their deeply held negative feelings about their Jewish neighbors. Most of the residents of Dilley are first, second, or third generation from south of the border. According to Wikipedia, “As of the census of 2000, […] the racial makeup of the city was 66.93% White, 10.40% African American, 0.57% Native American, 0.76% Asian, 18.81% from other races, and 2.53% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 72.24% of the population” (my emphasis). After we told a waitress at one of the Tex-Mex restaurants where we ate why we were in town, she very assertively told us that if we come across a woman who didn’t have a sponsor, who has nowhere to go when she is released, we should send her there, they’d give her work, even if she didn’t have papers. Her boss, a third-generation Texan who was embarrassed to admit she didn’t know who her congressperson was, was very excited about voting for Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee running against Ted Cruz for Senate. Many other people we talked to, there and in San Antonio, thanked us for the work that we do. In some cases, repeatedly, as if one expression of gratitude weren’t enough.
All the employees at the South Texas Residential Center are Spanish speaking—either immigrants or first or second generation in the United States. I did not experience or witness any unpleasant or disrespectful exchanges with any of them, nor did I witness any mistreatment or disrespect of any prisoner. However: We were eyes and ears on the ground. We were lawyers or as good as, so our presence might have affected their behavior. Fact: We were not allowed inside. Fact: All the women we talked to reported decent conditions, good and plentiful food, some kind of nominal play area for their children, something called school for the children to attend. Fact: Women and children seeking asylum in the United States are locked up in Dilley, Texas, in a prison owned by a corporation, which makes a profit off our tax dollars.
We work from 7:30 a.m. to between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m. in a trailer on the grounds but not inside the fences. We cannot see into the rest of the facility from anywhere we are allowed to be. Every time we enter, we pass through a different trailer where we are subjected to airport-like security. Our trailer is one large space with as many as ten small rooms around the perimeter, where lawyers (and interpreters) can meet with their clients, the inmates/ residents/ women/ refugees/ mothers and children. For most of the day there are up to eighty women and fifty children in that large room. The noise level is sometimes deafening, making it almost impossible, when the smaller rooms are all taken, to meet with clients there. Approximately sixty to seventy women cycle through that room a day, for charlas, or talks, that give them general information about intake, CFI prep, and release, or for their one-on-one prep sessions with the staff and volunteers.
That means sixty to seventy women a day come into detention and come to DPBP seeking legal assistance.
At any given moment total chaos might reign, a cacophony of crying and talking and shuffling and screaming, yet the volunteers and the amazing staff—overworked, impossibly devoted, maybe too young to know that they have to take care of themselves or they will burn out too soon—manage to make sure that everyone is attended to, seen.
Earlier I mentioned twisted minds, minds that doubt the veracity of the stories, that wonder if some of these women, after all, don’t really deserve our succor, our infinite generosity. Some cases present as stronger and some as weaker, and by way of explanation not excuse we must force ourselves to think in terms dictated by the system, the rules, the regulations, and the superstructure, in the Gramscian sense. At moments, we become the system. That is frightening, and in my case, at least a few times, a source of deep shame.
Most of the time, we simply need to dig deeper, question more intrusively, because usually it’s there. H.G.L. was abused by a man for years, restricted, beaten, kept under strict observation and control. But this isn’t enough, now, to qualify for asylum. In the great wisdom of our attorney general, there has to be a “plus” factor in cases of domestic violence, an “account of,” a reason she, because of some quality she cannot change or should not have to change, was thus abused. How pleased we were when we heard, after lengthy questioning, that she and her daughter would hide their Bible when he came in the house because if he saw her reading it he would beat her.
More of my own twisted mind: I didn’t believe I.R.G. at all. Her story begins with a rape in the hills, en el monte, where she is abandoned, then escapes, then they come to her house, then they come to her house first, then she escapes, then the next day they take her to the monte, where she escapes, is not raped, no, the rape happened later, and they are in a gang, for sure they are in a gang, because they all had tears tattooed around their eyes and all over the bodies. Our questions began to feel prosecutorial: But you said X? What happened before that? Before you said Y? Where, again, did you see them the second time? How many raped you? Earlier you said one, now you’re saying “all.” Which is it? How did you manage to escape if they were four men with machetes? The more we question, the more she gets tripped up, which is what a prosecutor wants, but not at all what we came there to do.
Fortunately, we realize what is going on and seek guidance from the staff, we ask a different volunteer to talk to her. That night I felt sick to think that it was just as likely, perhaps more so, that her story was confused and contradictory because she was traumatized, not simply by the events of the past but again, by her present situation. I am ashamed for denying her, even for a moment, the benefit of the doubt instead of its prejudice.
The eighty American women and children indefinitely imprisoned at the South Texas Residential Center are in a different kind of hell than all the other women we are helping. These are women whose children were kidnapped from them at the border and have now been returned. Although their past and present legal limbo is somewhat confused and confusing, it appears that most if not all of these women failed the CFIs they were given right after their children were kidnapped. I have not read the transcripts of those interviews, but I heard that they went something like this:
Asylum Officer: Why did you leave your country?
Woman: Where is my child?
AO: What kind of persecution did you suffer in your country?
Woman: Where is my child? I want to see my child. What have you done with my child?
AO: What kind of harm do you fear you will suffer if you return to your country?
Woman: Please just tell me where my child is. Is my child alive? I want to see my child.
Without legal counsel, and under the circumstances (are there words for that? can we imagine? is their pain knowable?), these women’s stories about the persecution they had suffered were not convincing, and in most cases the officers issued negative results. This is part of the reason they are still imprisoned.
Dilley and the surrounding terrain is flat. Flat and hot and humid and the dirt is reddish orange and grackles—an annoyance of grackles—gather on power lines and rooftops and on the rare tree, and make a racket of unique and wondrous qualities. In 2014, the year the South Texas Detention Center was put into operation to house women and children who had crossed the border seeking asylum, the population was 4,158. One set of statistics I saw put the urban/rural split at 96/4 percent, but there’s nothing in or around Dilley that would qualify to most of us as urban. Estimated median household income in 2016: $32,577. There are twice as many men as women. I also heard while there and have read on the Internet that the residents of Dilley welcomed the detention center in part because they were promised good, well-paying jobs. Instead, most of the employees are brought in from San Antonio, about an hour and a half away.
I can’t find a count of the grackle population. In Mexico, they are known as zanates. I read somewhere: “In the creation, Zanate, having no voice, stole his seven distinct songs from the wise and knowing sea turtle. You can now hear Zanate’s vocals as the Seven Passions—Love, Hate, Fear, Courage, Joy, Sadness, and Anger—of life.” Now that’s a good story.
Katherine Silver is the former program director of the BANFF International Translation Centre. She has been translating Spanish and Latin American literature for over thirty years and has more than twenty-five books and countless other publications to her name.