By: Krista Oehlke J.D. ‘20

Exit sign for Pearsall

Credit: Krista Oehlke

Most immigrants at the South Texas Detention Center (STDC) in Pearsall, Texas will bide their time, in limbo, for months: they will don prison uniforms, they will go outside and see the light of day only once a week if they are lucky (the detention center is windowless), and they will scour the law library so that they can represent themselves in Immigration Court. Residents at STDC do not have access to the internet; however, reports on current conditions in their home countries serve as vital corroboration for their claims that returning back to their country would be dangerous or fatal. When the residents are finally up for their merits hearing, the judge will call them by a nine-digit number, not by their name, and will scrutinize them from a three-foot-wide television screen. Most immigrants will not have a lawyer. Most will be turned away and returned to their home countries: one of the judges at STDC denies 85 percent of requests for immigration relief. The other, nearly 70 percent.

STDC is a jail. It is white concrete walls edged by razor-wire fences. For spring break, I traveled with seven other students from Boston to Pearsall, Texas to assist the pro se respondents inside. On the first day, we met the team of American Gateways, a nonprofit legal service provider, at 7:00am, and drove the 40 miles south of San Antonio to get to the detention center, the bread and butter of the desolate town of Pearsall and a source of income for Geo Group, the private company who runs it.

My task was to help three women complete their I-589 applications—a form that is used to apply for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture—and provide translation assistance for declarations that support their claims. To provide a contrast, as a student attorney at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), I represented one client during a school semester, with the help of a supervisor and another student attorney. At Pearsall, I spent a week providing legal services to three respondents.

One woman I met wrote a declaration that was a homage to her father. *Luisa outlines in clear detail her childhood and later teenage years, spending time with her father who campaigned for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. It details the campaign events she attended with her father, and the events leading up to his speaking out against the government. Luisa’s father later dies at the hands of the government. Fearing for her own life, Luisa flees to Mexico. There, she becomes victim to domestic violence and ends up on the streets. As a migrant, she receives little to no state protection and has no choice but to turn herself in at the U.S. border.

Another woman, *Nory, is barely old enough to be inside an adult detention center. As a Garifuna young woman in Honduras, she has faced discrimination all her life. But, she tells me, she fled Honduras because the 18th Street gang was after her and her younger brother. I have to ask her why she thinks the gangs targeted her so that she can establish “nexus”—the legal term used to connect the persecution suffered or feared to any of the five grounds contained in the refugee definition. She cries. Her first hearing is next week. We try to fit her experiences into neat boxes that constitute the five protected grounds for asylum: race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.

Back in Cambridge, the stories of the brave individuals inside the Pearsall detention center stay with me. The right to asylum has been a part of U.S. law for nearly 40 years, and yet STDC is evidence that our legal commitments are not meted out, especially for immigrants who cross our southern border. Moreover, last year, a decision issued by the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it even more difficult for asylum seekers to obtain relief based on domestic violence or persecution by gangs, causing confusion amongst immigration judges throughout the country and enabling conservative judges, like those in Pearsall, to take a much harder line against asylum seekers.

The result is not only a failure to comply with domestic and international law, but also the U.S. government’s complicity in creating policies that disparately impact Latinx immigrants. We should be ashamed of this period in history. Luisa and Nory should be given a chance. They are instead criminalized for seeking a life free from violence.

*Names anonymized to protect the identity of the individuals.