May 2, 2019

DILLEY, Texas — This town in South Texas isn’t Ground Zero for America’s polarizing battle over immigration policy. But it’s close.

Dilley, population 4,358, is 84 miles from the Mexican border. It’s home to the South Texas Family Residential Center—the largest immigrant detention center in the United States. For one week in February, this South Texas town also became a real-life, transformative classroom for five University of Washington School of Social Work students and faculty members. 

Volunteers from all over the country travel to Dilley to spend one week providing counsel for the mothers and children housed at the detention center. On this particular week, the five social work volunteers were joined by colleagues from the University of Washington School of Law and teams from the Department of Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Brigham Young University and Microsoft Corp., as well as lawyers from the U.S. and Canada.

“This is definitely a life-changing experience, particularly because we hear a lot of the stories in the news about what’s happening,” said Jane Lee, assistant professor of social work at UW. “Sometimes when you see it firsthand, that can be really powerful, especially just meeting the people who are affected by it.”

Lee was joined in Dilley by Aida Wells, a UW School of Social Work lecturer and field-education faculty member; Marian Harris, a professor of social work at UW Tacoma; Zea Mendoza, a third-year graduate student in social work; and Alejandra Villa, a second-year graduate student in social work.

The Dilley Pro Bono Project

The detention center was built during the Barack Obama administration to house undocumented families seeking asylum in the U.S. But it wasn’t until President Donald Trump’s administration began separating immigrant children from mothers and fathers that the center gained notoriety. 

“When I first started with the project, we would struggle to have five, 10 volunteers,” said Cindy Woods, one of two staff attorneys working with the Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP). “After family separation, there was a lot more attention to this issue. So now we are maxed out on volunteers. For the past six months we’ve had 30 volunteers every week.” 

The DPBP is part of the national Immigration Justice Campaign, a joint initiative of the American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). According to Immigration Justice Campaign, DPBP operates a pro bono model of legal services, representing detained mothers and children—at any given time there might be 2,400 in custody here—who are fleeing extreme violence in Central America and elsewhere, and are seeking asylum in the United States. 

The idea for the Dilley trip was conceived in the summer of 2018 when Eddie Uehara, dean of the UW School of Social Work, met with Laura Abrams, chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare. The discussions produced a partnership and a vow to send representatives from both universities to the detention center for a week of volunteer service. Dean Uehara later reached out to the interim dean of the UW School of Law to include law faculty and students on the collaborative team. (Read the UCLA Luskin Social Welfare service trip story.)

The only detainees during the February visit were mothers with children under 18 who had recently crossed the border into the U.S. The majority of the immigrants were from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The good news, according to the DPBP, is that more than 99.5 percent of the detainees are eventually released after the appeals process.

The UW social work team collaborated closely with the UW Law School team when preparing the detained women for their “credible fear” hearings—the first step in seeking asylum in the United States. All the social work participants were bilingual in English and Spanish. 

“For many of the families, this was the first time they talked about the trauma they had experienced in their home countries,” explains Wells who partnered closely with Lisa Kelly, the UW Law School faculty team leader on the service trip. Social workers have a unique skill set when it comes to understanding trauma observed Wells, (pictured center with Alejandra Villa, left, and Jane Lee, right). “We were able to listen to the families using their own language, their own words.” For many of the women, confiding in the UW team about their loss, fear and anxiety, eased the way for the subsequent recitation during the hearing process, which made for more compelling statements and contributed to better outcomes.

Volunteers, according to Katy Murdza, advocacy coordinator for the DPBP, are vital to the success of the project. “We have 12 people on staff, but that’s vastly insufficient for the number of families that are here,” Murdza said. “Families have a right to and need advice on how to go through their credible fear interview. Getting a positive on their interview is the key to being released from this detention center. Volunteers, while they might not have experience and it’s a lot to learn very quickly, can make a huge difference by coming and working with the Dilley Pro Bono Project because these families often need just a little bit of counsel to pass their interview.”

A Sense of Empowerment

The trip to Dilley hit close to home for Villa.

“I knew that I needed to try to get on board, because I have a personal connection with immigration and I am really passionate about that population,” she said. “When I found out that I was chosen, it was very emotional because I spoke about the opportunity with my family.”

Villa was born in Mexico and was formerly undocumented. “When I found out that I was undocumented—I had no idea until I was 14—it was this feeling of complete hopelessness, and I didn’t know if I even had a future any more in the country.”

When Villa learned that she had been chosen to go to Dilley, “it was a sense of empowerment. I tend to feel very hopeless in these situations when I hear about what’s going on under the [Trump] administration and everything in the news. So I just felt very empowered to be able to do something to help this population.”

Harris has spent most of her career working and advocating for children and families, so making the trip to Dilley was something she had to do. She was weary of the rhetoric coming out of the White House.

“Even though this is my first time here in Dilley and at a detention center, I know that women and children are not murderers, they’re not raping anybody, they’re not coming in with drugs, they’re not selling drugs,” Harris said. “I wanted to come here and make a difference in the lives of as many children and women as I can in a week. And I’ve already started doing this.”

Going Inside

After orientation and training, the UW team headed to the South Texas Family Residential Center, shown below. (Photographers and journalists are not allowed inside the detention center, so this part of the story is told through the eyes and experiences of the volunteers.)

“For me, walking into the facility for the first time was very difficult, a bit overwhelming, because all I kept thinking was there were so many families, so many children that were there and all I kept thinking about was what they’d been through,” said Wells, who is originally from Guatemala. “I kept looking at them. There was a look that they had, pretty much all the women I was looking at—sort of this sense of loss. There was emptiness. All I kept thinking was, oh my gosh, they have been through so much.”

What really struck Lee was the resilience and strength of the women. “Many of them shared their stories with us, and that can be a really difficult process. That was really powerful for me—an example of how important it is to give people space to validate their experiences and knowledge. 

“Oftentimes, these women don’t have the chance to share their stories, and to be among the first people that they speak to, and to tell them that we know it’s a difficult process, and we are here in solidarity with you, is really important.”

Villa felt a sensory overload upon entering the room where the women and children are being detained. “My first reaction was just the colors of their uniforms,” she said. “It was very bright, but it didn’t feel bright. It felt very dark. Just seeing children running around, it was very surreal. I had to remind myself, this is a detention center. They’re not running around happy. They don’t know what’s going on.”

The UW team heard heartbreaking and difficult stories from the migrant women they counseled, including the perspective of a woman and child who walked miles to cross the border only to be seized by the Border Patrol and placed in a jail cell where the mother was forced to beg for food and water for her child while shivering in wet clothing. “For me, it was just heartbreaking,” said Harris, (pictured left with Zea Mendoza). “When I heard that story … I had to hold my tears back because I did not want to be unprofessional. As soon as we finished the interview, I just broke down and I cried because it broke my heart to think that a young child was here in America without food, without water.”

The trauma suffered by the women and their children can be overwhelming for volunteers. “Stories like that just break your heart,” Wells said. “What else can we do? What else can we do to help?”

The stories hit close to home for Mendoza, who lived in Mexico most of her life. “It’s so fresh, the traumatic experiences that they’re telling us,” Mendoza said. “It is not something that happened five years ago, it’s something that happened last week, two days ago. And they arrived to this center very, very traumatized. The fact that they are sharing these stories over and over again because they need to be prepared for these interviews, is very traumatizing for them.”

The experiences in Dilley, while painful, will serve as powerful educational lessons for the students, and their teachers.

“The University of Washington is giving me this chance, and I just can’t believe it,” Mendoza said. “I feel like I won the lottery because that’s why I entered into the social work program, because I really wanted to help people. I wish more students can get involved in this kind of work because it’s needed. They need us.”

The UW faculty members agree. “I think it’s a wonderful learning opportunity for students,” Harris said. “To actually be here firsthand and talk to people who have a lived experience, you can’t replicate that in the classroom. For me, this is my first time here, but I will be back.”

Being able to help the women and children take one small but significant step toward asylum was fulfilling for the volunteers.

“This is their story and I get to have some part in helping them—whether it’s this small hurdle of getting them out of this center, I can do something about it and that’s the most gratifying thing of all of this,” Villa said.

The long, 12-hour days spent in the detention center taught Lee a valuable lesson.

“They are people like the rest of us, and they should be treated as such,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, that’s not happening. It’s so critical that people hear the stories, and that the stories become more humanized.”

Related Articles

Taking the border crisis to heart​ — UCLA Luskin Social Welfare
Credible Fear — Paw'd Defiance, UW Tacoma
Bearing Witness — UW Tacoma Professor Marian Harris and MSW student Zea Mendoza
My week at a Texas detention center — A personal essay by UW School of Social Work MSW graduate Alejandra Villa
Reflections — UCLA Luskin Social Welfare students and faculty share personal essays, poems and letters about their experiences
Behind the Wall — UW School of Law