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MSW/JD alum volunteers for pro bono project to assist mothers and children seeking asylum

Angie Stephenson, MSW/JD ’03, spent one week in Dilley, Texas, in November as a volunteer with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. The project provides legal representation to mothers and children seeking asylum from extreme violence in Central America and other locations. We recently contacted Stephenson about her experience, which she discusses in the Q&A below.

Stephenson’s expertise includes 10 years as a child welfare attorney in the N.C. Attorney General’s office. In her legal practice in Chapel Hill, she focuses on adoptions, social services law and appeals. She also currently serves as the attorney for the Chatham County Department of Social Services.

Q: Why was it important for you to volunteer with the Dilley Pro Bono Project and how did the work align with the work you do in Chatham and Orange counties?

I was a social worker with a BSW for 10 years before 2000 when I started graduate school at UNC to earn a dual degree in law and social work. From social worker to attorney, the focus of my career has been children and families, often with an overlay of trauma. When I decided to volunteer for the Dilley Pro Bono Project, I saw this as an extension of the work I’ve been doing with children and families in the child welfare arena. I knew the stories of survival would be almost unbearable and did my best to prepare myself for the effects of secondary trauma before I left.

What I found in Dilley were amazing women who had moved mountains to protect their children. The South Texas Family Residential Center found in Dilley, Texas, can detain up to 2400 mothers and children at any given time. Only mothers with children are detained in this location. The families are in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, but their detention is contracted out to the for-profit prison corporation, CoreCivic, the former Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The women I worked with during my week at Dilley had risked losing everything in their home countries and had taken extreme risks to come to America for the purpose of protecting their children from rape, kidnapping and murder. They were amazing women who passionately loved their children. The experience left me with deep admiration for the women who, despite immense challenges and likely PTSD, were persevering and doing everything they could for their children.

Q. Describe your week in Texas – what was your role and what were you doing each day to assist mothers and children seeking asylum?

I went to Dilley with a group of lawyers and interpreters, some of whom had been there before. Traditionally, the volunteers have helped women and children prepare for their credible fear interviews (CFI). Without legal representation, many of the mothers would not understand the interview process or their right to talk to an attorney. They may be missing critical information about their case from family members, may be distracted by family separation, have language barriers, or may be receiving inadequate medical care. They may have untreated PTSD or other mental health symptoms. Legal preparation for the CFI can help the mothers know which aspects of their traumatic life experiences are most important to highlight and historically has made a substantial difference in allowing them to continue to pursue their asylum claim outside the detention facility.

Because of recent policy changes rolled out without congressional lawmaking or oversight by the courts, the success rates for CFIs have decreased substantially. The week we were there, we mainly worked with women who had received negative CFI results to prepare them for their appeals to an Immigration Judge. This involved working closely with an interpreter to figure out all the adverse events that had happened to the family and determine which one(s) were the best fit for asylum criteria. The mothers did not always lead with the story that most closely matched the asylum criteria, so we had to really get to know the families’ circumstances in a limited amount of time, which required building trust. As you can imagine, trust does not come easily for someone who has lived through what these mothers have lived through. For some of the mothers, we prepared written declarations that they signed after ensuring accuracy. This gave them something to file with the Immigration court to make sure their story was communicated fully. Unfortunately, none of the women with whom my team worked had positive outcomes due to the recent policy changes. In contrast, the attorneys on my team who had been there before had experienced nearly 100% positive outcomes prior to these changes.

The relationship I developed with the interpreter became the most important relationship in my world for those five days we were working in the detention center. I was fortunate to work with an amazing woman who works with migrant farmworkers in her regular job. She was brilliant at developing rapport with the children and trust with their mothers.  She came with knowledge about the dynamics of persecution in different regions of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico, and helped me know which questions to ask to elicit the important facts from the mothers we interviewed. Another interpreter on our team was a licensed social worker from Brooklyn. She, along with our third interpreter, a professor from East Carolina University, was also adept at making connections with the detained mothers.

One of the most difficult aspects of being in the detention center was the rules that seemed designed to dehumanize the families with whom we were working. For instance, we were not allowed to hug the mothers or their children. Although I’m sure the mothers were craving kindness as much as the children, at least we could explain that to them. It is much harder to have to put your hands in the air to show the guards you are complying with the rules when a small child tries to hug you.  One sweet little four-year-old boy wanted a hug so badly. We had to continue to distract him as an alternative to directly rejecting his offers of affection.

Q. What are the biggest challenges these individuals and families face?

In their home countries, gang violence and domestic violence were both common themes for the women seeking asylum.  I worked with multiple women who were trying to protect their latency-aged daughters from rape and kidnapping by the gangs.  One woman’s husband had recently been shot by gang members who were also targeting her teenaged daughter.  Leaving their home countries was not an easy thing to do.  Many risked losing their homes and possessions. For some, leaving placed their relatives at home at greater risk of persecution.  It was not a decision they took lightly.

At the United States border, their challenges are ever increasing. Very recent policy changes that have not had input from the courts or Congress have contradicted prior interpretations of asylum law making it more difficult for persecuted mothers and children (and other refugees) to pursue asylum, particularly when they come through Mexico (most of the new challenges are only applied to those seeking asylum through the southern border). Experienced asylum officers are being replaced by border control agents, and access to legal counsel is being denied. The week before I was there, at least two Mexican families who had exhausted their asylum attempts were transported across the border in the middle of the night and left in an area known for kidnapping and cartel violence.

Q. In what ways were you able to incorporate your expertise as a social worker into the experience?

My law license made it possible for me to serve as a volunteer attorney in Dilley, but the social work training and experience were invaluable.  It was frustrating that, because of the recent policy changes, none of the mothers with whom I worked were ultimately successful in continuing their asylum process outside detention, leaving me feeling somewhat helpless in my attempts to assist them. On the other hand, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being able to sit with a mother clearly affected by trauma and actually listen to the horrible events she has had to live through. The humanizing feeling a person experiences when she feels heard was the only gift within my power to give to these particular women. My training and experience as a social worker prepared me for that.

Q. What did the entire experience teach you?

To be completely honest, I am still trying to figure out the best way to articulate the lessons learned from my time at Dilley. I feel like we, as a country, will look back on the circumstances currently existing at the border as conditions that have crossed an important line in defining who we are. I’m frustrated that what feels like a human rights issue is being caught up in politics, or worse, ignored.  Two things I know with certainty: 1) the people who are doing this important asylum work full time have my highest admiration and respect, and 2) as difficult as it was to volunteer at Dilley, I feel compelled to go back.

I am planning to post a series of blog posts in early 2020 that will have more information about my personal experience and links to related news and resources.

Q. In what ways can social workers further address the needs that children and families along the border are facing? 

There are several ways social workers can help:

  • Volunteer as an interpreter if you speak Spanish.  As a Spanish-speaking social worker, you are in a wonderful position to assist an attorney with unpacking the layers of trauma the mothers at Dilley are carrying with them. They also sometimes need volunteers who can do psychological evaluations that can be used as evidence for a legal case, for example, to show that someone has PTSD and how that may have affected their ability to tell their story. Learn more about this opportunity.
  • Donate to one of these causes:
    • Amazon list.  While I was there, the Dilley Pro Bono Project ran out of printer ink, so sending items from this list can have a real impact on the people doing the work on a daily basis.
    • Help staff and support the Dilley Pro Bono Project. Website donations to the Dilley Project are made through the American Immigration Council and are specifically earmarked for the Dilley Project only. If you prefer to donate by mail, please makes checks payable to the American Immigration Council, earmark that donation by writing “Dilley Pro Bono Project” in the memo line, and send to P.O. Box 829812, Philadelphia, PA 19182.
    • Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) to fund the Dilley Language Line (remote interpretation service). The Language Line allows the program to provide services for all of the women– from all over the world– who come into the trailer seeking help, in spite of the attorneys’ language limitations. Please make it clear that your donation is for the Dilley Language Line when you make the donation.
    • You can also earmark donations to the TRLA above to go to help the on the ground staff at Dilley.
      • Stay informed – this is an important time in our history, and the issue is too important to ignore.  Stay abreast of the current state of asylum law.
      • Talk to people you know. Shine a flashlight on this important issue so that more people will realize what current circumstances are like. Post on social media but also engage in one-on-one in-person conversations. Personalizing an issue and engaging in difficult but respectful conversations is a powerful tool in educating ourselves as a country.