Dispatch from Dilley, Texas: Children, mothers periled by ‘humanitarian crisis’

By Roy Lincoln Karp
Special to the Reporter

Leah Koretz loves helping children, especially those with medical or developmental issues. As a clinical supervisor at Boston Children’s Hospital Early Intervention Program in Jamaica Plain, that is exactly what she does every day.

As our family’s EI coordinator, she conducted weekly home visits for two and half years and helped our daughter access vitally important services including PT, OT, speech, feeding, aqua, and equine therapies. At a time when our nerves were frayed from running an ersatz NICU out of our house, Leah’s visits were a lifeline and the highlight of our week.

So it came as no surprise when we learned that Leah was going down to Texas to help women and children who had trekked hundreds of miles to seek asylum in the United States. The week after Christmas, when most of us were taking a few days to exhale and reflect on the year, Leah spent the week volunteering with the Dilley Pro Bono Project.

Founded in 2014, the project provides legal assistance to asylum seekers detained at the South Texas Family Detention Center in Dilley, Texas. The facility is operated by CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, the second largest private prison company in the nation.
Leah describes the facility as providing the “bare minimum,” just a group of temporary trailers surrounded by a dirt parking lot. Although she’s a licensed mental health clinician, she was not allowed to provide any assistance that did not relate to legal services. She received online training before travelling to Texas and a rigorous four-hour training once she arrived.

Her main task was to participate in “group chats,” which help mothers at three stages of the process: at intake when they first arrive, in preparation for their Credible Fear Interview, and before they are released to their US-based sponsor, often with an ankle monitor. During the interview, the women must articulate facts supporting a “credible fear” of persecution or torture if they return to their home country. They also must demonstrate a nexus between this persecution and their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion.

“It’s truly a humanitarian crisis we are facing,” Leah reflects. Almost all the mothers she met described horrific experiences of domestic or gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They explained how gangs would take over entire villages or neighborhoods and demand “rent” for their families to simply stay alive.

“These women are brave, strong people who want to work and contribute to society and build a life for their children without fearing for their lives on a daily basis.” She feels the portrayal of immigrants in the news these days is very inaccurate. “These families would add so much to our country. They are not criminals.”

Leah was struck by how young the children in Dilley were. Most were under age seven and many were toddlers. When their mothers were talking to the volunteer lawyers, Leah – who is fluent in Spanish – had some opportunities to talk with children in the waiting area while the Cartoon Network played in the background. These children are “reflections of their mothers,” she observes, “and would be wonderful additions to any classroom in this country, an example of resilience and hope.”

By contrast, President Trump has repeatedly described these women and children as an invading force that threatens national security. In November, he announced he was sending more than 5,000 troops to the border. Then Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pondered on Twitter, “What if instead of sending 5k troops to the border, we had sent 5k caseworkers…?”

“What if?” indeed. Instead of housing mothers and small children in a detention center run by a profit-driven prison corporation, what if we processed asylum seekers in a welcome center staffed by caring social workers, counselors, teachers, and health care professionals. Instead of building a wall, what if we erected a giant monument at our largest Port of Entry and adorned it with words of welcome for refugees escaping violence and yearning to be free? We could call it a “Statue of Liberty,” a beacon of hope throughout the world. I can almost picture it. Can you?