Mosaic / April 10, 2019

Interpreters assist asylum seekers at border

Senior Jennifer Erl and Professor Robin Ragan discuss their recent trip to Dilley, Texas to help asylum seeking women and children. Though the group felt initially overwhelmed, they were happy to help anyway they could. (Katy Coseglia/TKS)

A Knox-affiliated group travelled to Dilley, Texas over spring break with the intention of offering interpretation assistance to women and children seeking asylum at the border.

Seniors Jennifer Erl and Rebecca DiSomma, accompanied by Associate Professor of Modern Languages Robin Ragan, spent spring break volunteering with the Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP). Staff and volunteers with DPBP provide legal assistance and credible fear interview prep to asylum-seeking women and children detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

Credible fear interview preps are the first step in the asylum-seeking process that aims to prove to U.S. government officers that the individuals have a case that potentially qualifies them for asylum.

“[The other volunteers’] heads were spinning and [they] were also just as overwhelmed with the information as we were. That helped, it was very validating,” Ragan said.

Ragan and the team of students were encouraged to work directly with the mothers seeking advice to help them prepare for their credible fear interviews. The Knox volunteers had not gone through the lengthy law education that many of the other volunteers had gone through, so they were overwhelmed at first. After the first day, the group decided to only interpret, instead of directly prepping the women.

“I was glad when one of the staff presenting was like, ‘If you don’t feel overwhelmed right now, you either don’t realize what’s happening or you’re in denial,’” Erl said.

The students completed an independent study with Ragan during Winter Term that was devoted to preparing the group to interpret in such an intense environment. Ragan and her students prepared for the trip by focusing on first-person accounts of the mothers and focusing on trauma while interpreting. They received funding from Peace and Justice studies, The Stellyes Center for Global Studies and Richter grants.

Rather than doubt their qualifications and abilities, they realized that they needed to go into the experience with an open mind.

They had been trained to assist the asylum seekers in providing the legal information they needed and teaching them about the government policies in order to help them align their stories in a more understandable way.

“You had to start by saying ‘we all understand that you have valid claims to be here, but the law wants something very specific when you’re claiming asylum.’ Like it’s not just any kind of fear, it has to fit into these ‘boxes,’” DiSomma said.

In order to pass a credible fear interview, an individual must: show that when she moved to a different part of her country, the threat wouldn’t go away; the police/government were unable and unwilling to help her; she is afraid to go back to her country; she is facing persecution on the grounds of race, religion, politics, nationality, or membership of a particular social group.

The volunteers spent hours listening to the seekers’ traumatic experiences and repeating it back to the interviewer. As interpreters, their job was to repeat the seeker’s story in the first person, which was especially hard to get used to.

“You are going to take on some of this trama because interpreters speak in first person, that’s a big deal when it comes to taking on some of that trauma. If you use the first person you’re, in your mind, experiencing it because you are literally saying the words ‘I’,” Ragan said.

The interviews lasted hours and clients had to practice answering intense questions about their pasts. In the practice interviews, the mothers would role-play the real interview with the asylum officers to make sure that they were prepared for how the real interview would be.

While the group of interpreters knew it was important to push through prep after prep, it was sometimes difficult to stay optimistic, considering not all asylum claims are granted in the end, and this stage in the process was only the beginning of a long journey ahead.

“The process is so retraumatizing, it’s so convoluted. I mean, we had all the advantages in the world to understand this process, and even after having three lawyers explain it to us, it’s still so difficult to understand,” Erl said. “So when you’re asking someone who is so freshly persecuted and traumatized to understand the culture and the legal theory of another country … That’s not justice, it doesn’t make any sense.”

The work days would last 12 to 13 hours. When the group of Knox volunteers left Dilley, they felt lost and empty. After having spent so much time working to make an impact, everyday life felt mundane in comparison. Each volunteer wished they could go back and keep working.

“The project would send us emails and call us something like ‘detention warrior people’ … but I kept thinking ‘Oh my god we are not the warriors, [the asylum seekers] are so the warriors here.’ Because just thinking about all they’ve gone through É to get their family safe again,” Ragan said.

With so much to do, the full-time staff at the Dilley center always need assistance when it comes to this work. The group continues to volunteer some of their time to help with interpreting cases over the phone, scanning hundreds of papers or translating forms.

“I want to go back. I can’t wait to figure out how and when I can go back. I’m going to find a way to incorporate this into my life,” Ragan said.



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