Please be advised that much of what follows may be difficult to read. The team discusses the stories that most affected them during their time at the detention center.
* * *
Today was pesadísimo (very heavy/very difficult). While it feels almost disrespectful to use the word so many fathers use to describe their journey or their detention, it’s hard to find a more appropriate word to describe the hearts and minds of the advocates at Karnes today. Many of the volunteer attorneys are only now attorneys due to the sacrifices their immigrant parents made, almost all are immigration attorneys, and many are parents. Accordingly, everyone knew the high likelihood that there would be a breaking point when the stories we heard and situations we encountered would emotionally become too much and cause us to step away to regroup.
One of the attorneys’ father is from Guatemala like nearly 50% of the population at Karnes. The stories of violence and discrimination against indigenous families resonated with the stories her father told about the Guatemala civil war that caused him to come to the United States seeking a better future for his family. While these stories are all horrifying, the attorney was able to move forward every day, focused on our tasks at hand – until she met one frail man with a worried look on his face who initially did not want to speak much. The man and his 12-year-old son had arrived the night before and was with us for an initial intake. Speaking only very little Spanish, they began the intake through a Mam interpreter via a language line. After only getting through explaining our role, his rights, and beginning to ask whether he was afraid to return to his country, the man said he no longer wanted to speak. After explaining we were there to assist with whatever he wanted – to fight an asylum claim or request his deportation to be released more quickly – he nodded, we ended the call with the interpreter, and then the man broke down sobbing. Because of his limited Spanish not everything was understood, but it was clear what he was saying. He and his son were escaping extreme poverty in Guatemala. He kept repeating that his heart hurt for not being able to provide for his family and was so grateful to God that at the moment he and his son had new jeans, had shoes, and were able to eat at Karnes. He was devastated that his wife remained in Guatemala continuing to suffer in their absence and explained that his son had encouraged them to come to the United States and kept asking when they could leave detention to begin working. Within minutes, he was on the ground in a corner continuing to sob and repeating the same things. We assisted him in connecting a call to his wife, and later his son arrived to the visiting room and joined his father on the call. Leaving the room, you never would have known the man had broken down crying. It was clear he’s been strong for his son and has not let him see the desperation he felt. It was devastating to see this man break down who wanted nothing more but to work for an honest living and who was so appreciative for basic necessities. This man wasn’t asking to be given clothes or shoes by the United States – he came to earn them for himself. Instead of being afforded the opportunity to provide for his family while contributing to our economy, instead, he and his son sit unjustly detained unnecessarily costing our nation hundreds of dollars a day to line the pockets of the private prison industry.
Another attorney’s father was a Mexican immigrant like the man she spoke with. The man was a devote Evangelical Christian who lived his life seeking to live in peace and trying his best to never sin against his fellow man. Unfortunately, the gangs who controlled his community did not like how devote this man and his family were as their morals and values were counter to their own. After repeated threats of violence and death, he and his son fled to the United States seeking asylum. When he met with the first immigration official they encountered, he was immediately told he was a criminal. While his story was not the same as her father’s, the attorney’s breaking point was hearing this man, who lived his life trying to be the best man possible, who continued feeling ashamed, upset, and confused by being labeled a criminal for doing nothing more than seeking to protect him and his son. Why is it that her father was able to begin a new life in the United States in the 1980s but this man who has suffered persistent persecution is called a criminal in today’s America?
Another one of our attorneys, who is a parent herself, was tasked to work on a declaration for a father and son who had been separated for months to try to explain why the father had not been able to articulate his asylum claim during his credible fear interview. Following the end of his credible fear interview, the asylum officer asked the father if he had any questions for her. He immediately asked, "Where is my son? When can I see my son?" Of course, the asylum officer did not answer his question nor did she give any indication of when this father would be able to see and hold his child again. This father and son, like many others, had the grave misfortunate of attempting to enter the U.S. immediately before the zero tolerance and family separation policy began. His child was taken away from him by immigration agents without an opportunity to tell him goodbye, tell him he loved him, or even to hug him. They told him there was a new policy in place, his child would be separated, and they were unsure if he would ever see his son again. The father was handcuffed and taken one way, while his son was lined up with other children and escorted the other way. He described this moment - having to watch his son taken away in tears without knowing if it was the last time he would see him - as the worst moment of his life. The father was taken to federal prison and criminally prosecuted for illegal entry. He was then transferred to several immigration detention centers and expected to proceed with the asylum process without having any information about his son. The father was not sleeping, he could not eat, and all he could do was cry for his son and think about how much his child was suffering without him. During his credible fear interview, he sat before a U.S. asylum officer with the hope that she would have some information about his son. He was not in the frame of mind to articulate all the reasons they had fled their home country – he just wanted his son back. The irony is that this father, like most others at Karnes, fled his home country precisely to save his son’s life, and he arrived here, only to have his son stripped from his arms by the very country he needed help from. Today, our attorney sat with this father for hours drafting this declaration for him and grappling with the injustice that this father and son were separated for months, the father was denied any meaningful opportunity to pass a credible fear interview, and somehow our country still believes they both need to remain detained.
For a father assisting this week, hearing a man express feeling that he had failed as a father to one of his sons who he was not able to protect from armed assailants was nearly too much to bear. The man from Central America had witnessed the horrific murder of his child who was killed before him while riding as passengers on a bus. By the time he noticed that his child had failed to follow the assailants’ instructions of lowering his head in order to avoid identification, it was too late and he heard a heart-wrenching gunshot - his precious son was dead. He told us that he felt overwhelmed with guilt for his son's senseless and avoidable death. "If I had pushed his head down for him ... he would still be with me." As a parent, keeping your child safe is unquestionably your single most important responsibility. To call it a responsibility does not even begin to describe the physical, emotional, and mental sacrifices you would willingly endure to protect your child - it is a lifelong preoccupation, an obsession. This unspeakable tragedy motivated this father's decision to flee with his other son, a two-year old, for the United States. He was determined to give his other son a safer life, where they could cherish the basic freedom to ride a bus without being pointlessly murdered. Unfortunately, because the incident surrounding his older son’s murder, which the man described in his credible fear interview before an asylum officer, involved harm caused by men who had randomly targeted his son, the officer determined that his situation did not constitute a viable asylum claim. Throughout our meeting, the man’s watery eyes were filled immense grief, sadness, and pain. His two-year old was present during our meeting and would regularly beam at his father with the joy and innocence of a child who does not yet understand evil. His father would stare emptily back at him, unable to reciprocate the smile. No parent should ever have to suffer the agonizing heartbreak of losing a child, or feel the unrelenting guilt that they could have done more to protect them. By the end of the meeting, the little boy had fallen asleep in his father's protective arms. We saw before us a man who had already suffered the greatest loss imaginable, and yet still had so much to protect. His love for his son and determination to keep him safe are representative of the powerful motivations that drive so many people to try to immigrate to the United States each year. Parents want safety and happiness for their children. There is no wall large enough that could be built that would change this basic fact of human nature. The natural desire to protect one's children and see them thrive are shared by all of humanity, despite the unjust reality that only very few are fortunate enough to have been born on the side of the border that allows this desire to be realized.
Today, like every day this week, we continued to be astonished by the dedication and will of the RAÍCES staff who listen to these stories week in and week out. They know the toll these stories take on a person and intentionally go to Karnes in shifts. The compassion of this team is unmatched, and it has been incredible to see not only how much they care for the families coming to the United States but also for the well-being of each other.