It looks like paradise outside the Port Isabel Detention Center.
Driving through Texas’ southernmost tip, junior Alexis Ramirez, saw lush farmland, tidy homes and palm trees. The ranches outside the car’s window only appeared greener and fuller as he neared the border station. Once inside its lobby, though, the only color he saw amidst the scenery of gray lawyers and holding cells were those orange jumpsuits of the detainees seeking asylum.
“It was surreal,” Ramirez said. “There was just no way that something so healthy, something so good looking would lead into something that is just disturbing. There was a shift in colors. It’s just so hard to understand that there was such a welcoming gate to such a disturbing place Ñ to such a place where it drains you, physically. It was more like a mask.”
Ramirez volunteered at the center in Harlingen, Texas in June 2019 with juniors Natalie Juarez and Maika Padilla and senior Montse Cancino alongside Spanish Professor Robin Ragan. The students spoke about their experience at a panel on Tuesday Jan. 7, alongside seniors Ellis Staton and Stephanie Martinez-Calderon, who volunteered with Ragan at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California over Winter Break.
The sites stood just miles from the U.S-Mexico border. Ragan and the students shared an Airbnb and drove to the detention centers each morning around 7 a.m. The volunteers spent up to eight hours a day inside, paired with lawyers and clients — translating into English the personal documents and personal traumas integral to each asylum-seeker’s flight from their home country.
“We literally couldn’t believe what we were hearing,” Ramirez said. “And you had to keep yourself contained. If I break down, and I am not even in this situation, what does it mean to this guy? Kind of like: how dare I break down when I am not the one in here?”
In their orange jumpsuits, the migrants pointed to the scars on their body, recounted their inability to sleep while separated from their children, the days they spent on foot trekking through the jungles of Central America and the days they spent tortured by Cuban authorities.
Unlike Google translate, the interpreters were not merely plugging the migrants’ words into English. The volunteers repeated their stories in first person, stepping into the shoes of the migrants whose words they voiced. Staton shook through each session. Martinez-Calderon struggled to speak and cry at the same time.
“Every word he spoke I spoke, and every tear he shed I had shed as well. His words were flowing through my mouth, but I felt the pain. I felt the danger. I felt scared,” Ramirez said. “I felt completely every single thing that he explained to me and it got so overwhelming that we needed to take multiple breaks during our sessions. Just to breathe.”
The federal government defines an asylum seeker as “a person who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country and cannot obtain protection in that country due to past persecution, or a well founded fear of being persecuted in the future.” According to The New York Times, asylum seekers accounted for half of all new immigration cases in 2019, at a record 159,590 cases.
Staton said people who present at a port of entry without legal documentation enter “expedited removal proceedings” where they are apprehended, held in a detention center and must prove they are eligible for asylum. Migrants can only be released if they can find a sponsor for bond, or are sent back across the Mexican border to await their court date.
More than before, Professor Ragan said their trip to San Diego evidenced the “horrific results” of Migrant Protection Protocols, what is commonly referred to as Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico Policy’. The policy requires that foreign individuals seeking admittance or asylum must wait in Mexico. She said it is more difficult to find a lawyer in Mexico and individuals — especially the transgender migrants Ragan interpreted for — are vulnerable to predation.
“So it’s three more months of waiting at the border and then all these people are bottlenecked at the border, waiting for their turn to cross,” Ragan said. “And often without proper shelter, without enough food, very much a victim of extortion, kidnapping that happens all the time at the border because people are there vulnerable and just waiting.”
As each trip only afforded five days inside the centers, the volunteers were pressed to pack in as much interpreting as possible. But there was limited space dedicated to their conferences and the volunteers had to wait between half an hour to three hours to meet with clients Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials sometimes said were “lost” inside the facility.
While the volunteers were the only individuals in the room capable of communication between all the actors involved, they were only supposed to translate exactly what the asylum-seekers spoke, nothing more.
“You wish you could just say, ‘Hey maybe if you ask him this’, or, ‘Maybe if you ask your lawyer this’, then you guys can understand what’s going on even better,” Ramirez said. “But you can’t do that and it leaves you frustrated because you’re like, ‘Fuck, we could have saved 10 minutes if I would have been able to suggest this.’”
Before each trip, Ragan reached out to students in her interpreting or translating courses. The students who agreed met together with Ragain several times before their trip, practicing scripts and learning legal vocab. While Staton, not a native-Spanish speaker, found the practice meetings intimidating, amid the intensity of the sessions the necessity to interpret overpowered insecurities she had over her Spanish skills.
“I am used to a Spanish accent, and these people were coming from El Salvador, Honduras, which are very different accents depending on each country,” Staton said. “As well as I had never interpreted in a situation where it goes for that long. Like in class we were interpreting five minute scripts and this was hours on end of just constant interpreting.”
Ramirez first started taking Spanish courses his freshman year, barely testing into his 201 class, he said.
“I went from flipping through these exams looking for the easiest questions to not even using my Spanish for school work,” Ramirez said. “It’s completely separate from schoolwork. I’m coming from doing it because I need a grade to doing it because I need to save a life.”
Since their experiences at the detention centers, many of the volunteers have considered looking into interpreting careers. Martinez-Caldero has continued to translate documents sent to her and when Ramirez has a few hours of free time he joins three-way phone calls with lawyers and migrants who need urgent help. Staton said she still re-runs what she witnessed in San Diego, that she does not forget what she has told.
“I almost feel like I’m at a point of there’s nothing I can do, but also at the same time wanting to go into this field because I feel like there’s something I can do. So it’s a very weird dynamic of helplessness and I’m ready to help,” Staton said.
For Ragan, despite the trauma she has witnessed with her students at the detention centers, the trips reveal to her a network of compassion.
“What I try to remember when I also feel beleaguered about how dire and depressing this situation is how incredibly inspiring it is to know how many Americans are actually volunteering to help asylum seekers,” Ragan said. “Whether it’s through pro bono lawyers or they’re providing shelter, or providing money for bond or writing notes to keep people’s spirits up or providing presents for Christmas. There is so much going on that Americans are involved in, trying to do what they can.”