Women at the Border: Resilient, Strong, Protectors

Fear, desperation, and hopes for a better life for their children drive women to the Mexican-U.S. border. Many women are fleeing domestic violence and gang violence that their own government has been unable to or refused to protect them and their children from. This leaves them no choice, but to escape. Even the smallest chance of a better life is worth the dangers they face traveling miles by foot, car, train, and bus. Most of the women I have met with, both at the border and, in my office, when they consult with me, have described a perilous journey- one that oftentimes includes sexual assault, robbery, criminal gang harassment, and sometimes kidnapping. Women of childbearing age take birth control while in route to avoid being impregnated by rape. These journeys range from one month to three months long and many of these women do it with the additional concern of taking care of their children along the way. Imagine the dangers they are running from that would make a trip under these conditions more inviting than their own home.  

In November 2014, I volunteered at the Karnes Family Detention Center in Karnes City, TX. Karnes is a detention facility in southern Texas that detains women and their children when they cross the border. Once these women and their children arrive at the detention facility, they wait for an interview with an asylum officer, who determines whether their fear is credible. In other words, an asylum officer determines whether there is a significant possibility that these women could establish in a full hearing before an Immigration Judge that they had been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution or harm in the future.  

Facilities like Karnes are no way equipped to house children. Planted fake flowers, green grass, a chapel, a playground, toys for the children, and pictures of families along the hallways provide a façade for what is still very much a jail. These women do not have freedom of movement and they had to answer to male guards, who, at times, were offensive and mean. Despite this nightmare, many women felt safer here, in a prison, than at home.  

During my time at Karnes, I interviewed women and their children, prepared and represented them during their credible fear interviews, and sometimes represented them in front of an immigration judge to review an asylum officer's denial- this was often their last opportunity before removal. I saw many women released to family members in the United States after passing their credible fear interviews. Some were released with ankle monitors, but to them this was still freedom and they were finally safe; more freedom and safety than they experienced in Central America. I also saw many women, who did not pass their credible fear interviews, deported back to their country of birth- Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador- even though they were genuinely afraid of what could be waiting for them there.  

The most powerful thing I saw was the resilience, tenacity, and fight these women had in them- mostly to protect their children. I know now that no one is stronger or more powerful than a woman protecting her child. My team met with a mom, who had two young daughters. This woman was escaping violence at the hands of her husband. Little did she know, her daughters were also escaping violence they experienced at the hands of young male gang members. Mom was under the impression that she was just saving her daughters from their abusive father. It wasn’t until mom failed her credible fear interview and was at risk of imminent deportation that her daughters revealed to us that they too were afraid of what may happen to them. The other lawyers and I scrambled to request separate interviews for her daughters; however, in the meantime, her deportation officer was scheduling their deportation.  

Officers entered mom’s room on multiple occasions requesting that she sign a document. She knew this would mean deportation and she refused. The officers went so far as to isolate her and her daughters in a medical room; mom still wouldn’t budge. She was threatened with criminal charges and the possibility of her daughters being taken away from her. Mom’s actions were buying her attorneys time to request interviews for her daughters and have those interviews scheduled. She faught hard, risked criminal charges, and faced jail time to make sure her daughters were heard and protected from the physical and sexual assault they would likely experience if they had to return home. 

Even these horrendous “family detention centers” were better than the Trump Administration’s policy to separate parents from their children. The policy is a punitive measure that goes against the core values we have in this country as it relates to family and parenting- safety, protection, quality time, etc. It takes the decision away from parents fleeing persecution on how to protect their children. In my experience, the women in these facilities share these values, which is why they decide to put their children first and risk their lives bringing them here for a better, safer future.   

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