Part of the Diversity and Inclusion Blog Post Series
The road to Dilley, Texas is long from Jackson, Mississippi, where I live. In February 2019, I flew from Jackson to Houston, Texas, then on to San Antonio, Texas, where I rented a car and drove to Dilley the next day. Dilley is on I-35 South, just over an hour’s drive from San Antonio. It is in a flat rural area about 85 miles north of the Mexican border in Laredo, Texas. The population of Dilley in Frio County was estimated at 4,400 in 2017. There are two prisons in Dilley that I had never known. One of them is the Dolph Briscoe Unit, a prison in the state of Texas that houses about 1,384 adult male offenders. I noticed the Briscoe unit as I drove past a field on the way to the South Texas Family Residential Center, and saw a man on horseback wearing a cowboy hat and monitoring the inmates who appeared to be working in a field. Right down the street from Briscoe is the center, the other prison in Dilley.
At the time of my visit, the center was a migrant detention center for women and children, mainly from Central America. I visited the center to volunteer at the Immigration Justice Campaign as part of a group of lawyers and interpreters to assist migrants in their credible fear interviews. At the time when a migrant without a visa crossed the U.S. to seek asylum, she was sometimes detained with her child or children and offered a credible fear interview with a U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Immigration to asylum officials Services (USCIS). The detainee had to prove to the satisfaction of the official that she had actually or “credibly” feared to return to her country of origin in accordance with international asylum laws before applying for asylum. Under asylum law, she can receive asylum in the United States, which serves as a refuge and refuge if she meets certain requirements. These requirements include fear of returning home due to past or future persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion and / or belonging to a particular social group. The law requires that a person apply for asylum within one year of their arrival in the United States.
I spent six days in the city of Dilley, five of them in the detention center. Most of the prisoners I saw in Dilley came from Central America. In those days there seemed to be more thousands of women and children, but the maximum population is 2,400 and the numbers seldom hover above 1,500. Most had fair skin and I suspected it was probably a mix of Native American and European. Some had dark skin and I assumed that they were probably members of the African diaspora and, like me, were descendants of the slave trade between Africa and America between the 15 yearsth and 19thth Centuries. I helped prepare several women for their credible fear interviews. Shortly before the end of the week I interviewed a Garifuna woman from Honduras. I had lived in Honduras for ten months between 1991 and 1992, working as an English teacher in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa on a grant from the United States Information Agency, which is now part of the U.S. State Department.
I was familiar with the Garifuna, some of which I had met when I lived in Honduras. According to some historians, Garifunas are the descendants of the Caribs, an indigenous people of the Lesser Antilles. According to several statements in the 17thth and 18thth Centuries of Caribs on the island of St. Vincent married African slaves, who captured them in raids on European settlements or who escaped their western kidnappers. They became known as the Black Caribs, who were finally deported to the island of Roatan, which is now part of Honduras, around 1797. The deportees managed to survive, restore their culture and migrate to mainland Central America. They settled mainly on the east coast in what is now Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize. Today the Garifunas their own culture and language, but are also fluent in Spanish and English in Belize, a former British colony that is now a Commonwealth empire.
The Garifuna woman I helped prepare was in her early 30s, dark brown and a bit plump, like me. In the short time that I knew her, we seemed to easily connect and connect that we were both Africans born and raised in America. She had made the long, turbulent and difficult hike with her little son by land from Honduras to Mexico and had entered the United States hoping to seek asylum there and fell into the arms of border guards. Her son fidgeted and clung to her when we spoke. We seemed to be comfortable. At the beginning of our meeting, I introduced myself as a volunteer lawyer and announced that I had lived in Honduras for a short time, albeit a long time ago. I speak and understand quite a bit of Spanish, but I am not fluent. Despite my sluggish Spanish, the Garifuna woman was very cooperative and revealed a lot about her life to me so that I could help her with her credible fear. I was sometimes able to ask questions with the help of a telephone interpreter and explain the credible fear process in Spanglish (a mixture of Spanish and English). She seemed to understand. Towards the end of our meeting (without a telephone interpreter present), she asked me if I was actually a lawyer. I said yes. Then she kindly said that she had never met a black lawyer. She seemed genuinely pleased that we had met and that she had been compared to me among the other volunteer lawyers at the center who were white.
A few days later I checked the innovation laboratory for online data systems and it turned out that my first Garifuna client was successful in her credible fear interview. It made me happy again that I chose the long and winding road (for me) to become an immigration attorney, a field of law that statistically few women in the African diaspora in the United States have chosen.
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