The asylum seekers currently detained in Karnes, Texas may be far away from Boston, but for students at Harvard Law School’s Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), the issues and work couldn’t be closer to home. This past winter break a group of Harvard law students spent part of their January term volunteering and providing pro-bono work to Central American women and children held at the Karnes detention center.
Combining what she learned in the classroom and at HIRC, Katrina Fleury (HLS ’16) spent part of her January term working with the asylum seekers in Texas. She recently provided HIRC with a description of her experience and why she believes the work being done there is so important.
HIRC: How did your experience at HIRC prepare you for volunteering at the Karnes detention center?
KF: The clinic at Harvard was invaluable; I don’t think I would have been an effective advocate at the detention center without it. During the semester clinical course we learned about the asylum process and the necessary elements to prove an asylum case. It’s critical to understand those in order to prepare detainees to explain their stories during their credible fear interviews.
HIRC: What was a big difference between the work at Karnes and your experience at HIRC?
KF: One of the biggest contrasts with the clinic was how detention center work required a drastically different approach to interviewing and advising clients. In the clinic, students are assigned a client to work with over the course of the semester. The client is generally not detained and the court date is often months or a year or more away. The theory of the case comes to light slowly throughout weekly interviews as students develop trust with the client and she/he gradually reveals traumatic details.
In the detention center, you have an hour or two with the asylum seeker to understand his/her story, figure out if he/she potentially qualifies for asylum, and then help the asylum seeker practice explaining it for the credible fear interview.
This means having to ask those sensitive questions regarding horrific events and delve into the details of painful experiences the client often has never revealed before to anyone. As you hear story after story, with details of rape, murder, violence, and unimaginable examples of human cruelty, you have to find a way to remove yourself. What I learned quickly was that you end up compartmentalizing what you hear. I was still listening and understanding the stories and trauma, but not quite fully processing it.
At the end of the day, I was often physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. One way to get over this was to do something fun, spend time with loved ones, or watch something funny to remind you that while humanity has the ability to be unspeakably cruel, it is still capable of compassion and love.
HIRC: What do you think the biggest obstacle facing many of the asylum seekers at Karnes is right now?
KF: The biggest obstacle facing asylum seekers is getting to speak to an attorney or volunteer before their credible fear interviews. Receiving a positive determination from the asylum officer is crucial. If the asylum officer rules positively, the detainee is usually released on bond and continues his/her asylum claim elsewhere. If he/she receives a negative determination, an immigration judge can review the decision, but the judge’s review is limited and often upholds the asylum officer’s original determination.
Even if the asylum seeker has a potentially valid asylum claim, the interview is filled with legal questions that are often confusing to the asylum seekers and often fail to reveal the entire story. For example, one question often asked during credible fear interviews is: “Have you ever been threatened or harmed on account of your membership in a particular social group?” Most women who have suffered domestic violence would say no, even though asylum recognizes that gender constitutes membership in a particular social group and domestic violence can be the basis of a claim for asylum. Or the same question, but on account of “political opinion.” Most people think politics and political parties when they hear that question and automatically say no. But under asylum law, political opinion includes feminist actions and beliefs, like pursuing independence from a male-dominated society and refusing to submit to the societal norms for women.
Just spending an hour speaking with the women about what happened to them and explaining the types of interview questions and what the questions are actually trying to ask makes a world of a difference in their credible fear interview outcomes. Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough volunteers and lawyers currently there to be able to reach every woman and child.
HIRC: Did you feel you were able to make a difference during the short time you were volunteering?
KF: One personal difference that I was able to make involved a case of one particular woman. She wasn’t able to meet with us prior to her credible fear interview or immigration judge review, and she received negative determinations both times.
In general, there isn’t much that can be done at that point, especially if you don’t have a private lawyer. Pro bono lawyers and organizations are strapped for resources and unlikely to take on the case that has almost no chance of succeeding yet requires many hours of work. I spoke with her for several hours that week. I felt deeply troubled by the way the asylum officer spoke to her in her interview, and how despite such a strong claim, she had been slighted by the system.
I knew it was crazy, a long shot, but I felt compelled to help. The realization that I was truly her last option weighed on me. My supervising attorneys, John and Nancy, graciously agreed to let me take on her case with their guidance, even though January-term was ending and they themselves were swamped with so many cases. So I wrote her affidavit, drafted a request for re-interview letter, and worked with the family to get supporting documents sent. We communicated with the asylum office about the documents and what we were doing, and they agreed to stay her removal order until they reviewed our request.
We were astounded a few days ago when the asylum office decided to reverse their initial negative credible fear determination and instead grant her a credible fear. This is almost unheard of. Now we are working with her on the bond hearing paperwork, and hopefully she will be released soon.
HIRC: What was your biggest takeaway from the experience?
KF: My experience reminds me of the poem, “The Starfish Story,” and how much it sums up my motivations and reasons for pursuing a career in immigration and asylum law:
The Starfish Story
A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.
“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks.
“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”
“But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”
The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”