Last week volunteers from across Central Ohio – including three regular COWC volunteers: Byanka Aguirre, Jessica Camacho, and Austin Kocher – spent a week in Texas working with detained families. The following letter by Austin Kocher summarizes the work we did and how you can get involved in future trips.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting our recent trip to Dilley, Texas to fight for the dignity and safety of detained asylum-seeking immigrant families. This work is important to us and it makes an immediate, substantive difference in the lives of mothers and children who are fleeing an increasingly fierce combination of gang violence, political corruption and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. I want to tell you more about the CARA project and what we have planned in coming months.
The CARA project provides legal counsel, emotional support, general information, and advocacy to mothers with minor children who have been detained at the U.S. border and who are applying for asylum. In response, our government detains these women and children in freezing concrete buildings called hieleras for days and sometimes weeks, then transfers them to one of three for-profit prisons where they undergo a credible fear interview–a hurdle that they must clear before they are allowed to apply for asylum in the U.S. In detention, young children lose weight due to stress, serious and chronic illnesses are treated with ibuprofen and an order to “drink more water”, and crucial legal information about the asylum process is withheld from women, many of whom are semi-literate, indigenous, and/or have little experience with bureaucratic processes. Moreover, many women become deeply discouraged to have fled so far only to be imprisoned. U.S. immigration authorities is not required to detain these women nor create hurdles to their asylum application. In fact, the detention centers have been ruled as illegal, with one judge describing the hieleras as “deplorable” and the detention centers “unconstitutional.”
For many women, the volunteers at the CARA project are all that stand between deportation and asylum. The project has a small staff and budget. Without your support for volunteers to work on-the-ground at the center, CARA would not exist. Although the average pass rate for women at the center was about 40%, about 90% of women who work with the CARA project pass their initial interviews. We believe this number more accurately reflects the percentage of women who have legitimate claims to asylum. Moreover, for many women, the CARA volunteers are the first people in the United States they have met who are unarmed, who aren’t making a profit off their incarceration, and who are willing to listen to their courageous stories. Until we shut down family detention completely, we will continue to champion these mothers who struggle against all odds for the safety of their children and themselves.
As an example, a colleague of mine who works at the shelter in San Antonio for women who have been released sent me a message recently: “Dilley women coming to La Casa are really grateful with CARA volunteers. They just keep telling us how they get their hope back when they talk to all of you.”
I am very excited to tell you that on the third trip during the week of February 14, 2016, we were able to go with a team of eight volunteers from Columbus. During this trip, we were able to work with over 200 women to prepare them for their credible fear interview. For instance, I worked with a woman, Rosa, who was targeted by gangs in Honduras for extortion. Her nephew had already been killed by the gangs. Rosa, who is a single mother with a young daughter, made clothes and sold them in the market. Because of her vulnerability as a single woman and the visibility of her business, the gangs visited her home at night in masks, knocking at her door and calling her on the telephone demanding money. They would also visit her in the market and, like they do with many shopkeepers, demand money in exchange for “protection.” Like many women, Rosa does not want to leave her family in Honduras to come to the U.S. But for her own safety, and the safety of her daughter, she came seeking protection. Although her case is not over, it is very likely that with basic preparation she will pass her interview, be released from detention, and be allowed to file asylum within the U.S.
Until we end family detention there will be ongoing need for your support. There are three ways we would love for you to stay involved.
1. Volunteer with the CARA project in Dilley, Texas.
Another trip is planned for late May or early June with another group of volunteers from Columbus. If you are able to join us on the next trip, or if you wish to volunteer on your own at another time, please let me know. We are looking for people with some combination of fluency in Spanish, legal expertise, and case worker experience. However, even if you do not possess those skills, there is still much for you to do! The most important criterion is that you are willing to go and to work hard over the course of one week.
2. Provide financial support for CARA volunteers.
If you cannot join us, please consider donating to individual volunteers. Many volunteers–especially those from Spanish-speaking immigrant backgrounds–do not have the budget to make the trip without outside help. Look for announcements in the future for campaigns on GoFundMe, or ask me to be connected directly with one of our volunteers.
3. Get others involved.
Please tell others–friends, family members, and coworkers–about the CARA project, and ask them to volunteer or to give financially. Many professionals bring unique skills to this work that we can learn from, including teachers, social workers, nurses, psychologists/psychiatrists, paralegals, and attorneys.
Lastly, the Columbus team will be hosting a public event about our trip in the coming weeks. When the details are decided, we will advertise through email and social media. We would love to see you there.
In the words of Ellie Wiesel, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Let’s not fail to protest.