On November 16, 1983, as a 3-year-old girl, I landed in Dallas, Texas along with my mom and my older sister to join my father, who had made the same journey from India a few months earlier. My family, like many others, left the only place we knew in hopes of a better future. Over the next few years as recent immigrants, our family struggled to make our way in this new country of unknowns. My parents worked hard and sacrificed and slowly we were able to buy our own home and achieve our own version of the American dream.
Fast forward to 36 years later, and on November 16, 2019, I found myself preparing for another trip to Texas – this time to Dilley, a town located 80 miles southwest of San Antonio and 85 miles north of the Mexico border – armed with a law degree and with hopes of helping other immigrants that were escaping much worse conditions and dangers back home and facing an immigration process and system that gives them very little chance of achieving their own dreams.
I had the incredible opportunity to spend a week in Dilley volunteering with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, a partner in the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association Immigration Justice Campaign. I was able to join a group organized by the South Asian Bar Association of North America and partially funded by the generous support of the SABA Foundation – both organizations that do important work and with which I’ve had the privilege of being deeply involved. I am also grateful to work for Dell Technologies, a company that has a robust pro bono program and a strong commitment to volunteering – even providing volunteer hours for employees like me to pursue opportunities such as this one.
While many of us have been reading about the atrocious conditions at the border and have cringed at photos and articles of families being separated and held in inhumane conditions, nothing prepared me for what I would experience being there myself.
Our days were spent at the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC), the largest family detention center in the country, housing more than 2,400 women and children. These women and children are mostly from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who have fled harsh conditions such as dangerous gang violence or horrific domestic abuse.
Our work, along with the project’s full-time staff, consisted of preparing our clients for their Credible Fear (CFI) or Reasonable Fear Interviews (RFI), where they have to go in front of an asylum officer and answer a litany of questions in order to establish that they have “credible fear” or “reasonable fear” of returning to their home country. We learned that previously, clients had over a 90% rate for positives in CFI interviews. But the situation has changed dramatically, and currently, the rate for positives is around a mere 10%. That statistic alone is depressing; seeing it play out in the cases of clients I worked with was heartbreaking.
During my week in Dilley, I prepared several women and children for their interviews. I was even able to accompany one of my clients to hers. Each preparation would take hours; listening to our clients recount painful stories of cartels burning down houses, gang members raping women, and of brutal violence at the hands of their partners, among others. We would then have to take these horrific stories and try to make them fall neatly within the strict legal requirements needed to establish fear. It was a difficult and painful exercise when all we really wanted to do was give them a hug and provide some comfort (which is strictly prohibited within the detention center and can get you banned from returning to the center).
Putting this experience into words has been extremely difficult. Having two young boys of my own, seeing these children in these circumstances was painful. Being a mother, and knowing what I would do to protect my children, my heart ached for the mothers who put their lives on the line to flee their countries in hopes of a better future for their families.
While I returned home after a week in Dilley, my mind and heart remain there. I continue to follow the cases of the clients that I personally worked with, keeping my fingers crossed for a positive outcome for them. I find myself thinking about the women and children I met there, and what more I can do to help them and this cause.
If you too wonder the same, I urge you to get involved with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. If you can volunteer and be there on the ground, or even if you can volunteer remotely, or if you can donate to the cause – every little bit counts and does make an impact.
On our last day, after leaving the detention center with a heavy heart, I saw the scene in the picture below. I try to keep it as a reminder that even in the darkest of times, we can still strive to shine some light. And perhaps there is a ray of hope that one day soon, another 3-year-old girl and her family can arrive in the United States and achieve their own American dream.
Editor’s Note: Lalitha Gunturi Ranganath is a member of The Bedford Citizen’s Board of Directors