Less than an hour but an entire world away from the trendy bars and food trucks of Austin lies the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. After leaving the freeway for a country highway lined with pastoral scenes of corn and cotton fields, I find myself in Taylor, Texas. I turn right at the small road lined with shiny farm equipment for sale, cross the tracks, and behold an all too familiar sight: a rural landscape interrupted by a fortress of high chain link fences and wire, an ominous low-rise institution looming inside. I am struck, once again, that despite my recent transition from criminal justice to immigration law, these so-called “detention centers” are indistinguishable from the prisons I once frequented. And although this is my first trip to Texas, the signature near-identical façade of this CoreCivic facility (the corporation that manages Hutto and other detention centers throughout the country) makes it eerily reminiscent of the detention center I often visit in Georgia.
I am here to work with some of the detained women at Hutto, advising and preparing them for the first step in an asylum claim, the Credible Fear Interview or “CFI.” If a CFI is positive, they will be permitted to raise an asylum claim in immigration court and to possibly be released from detention during its pendency. If the CFI is negative, they will be deported in short order. These interviews are conducted by government asylum officers, but at Hutto officers do not appear in person.
This means that these women will have to tell the most painful events of their lives to a stranger, over the phone, through an interpreter, in the hopes of convincing him or her that the persecution they endured meets the legal standard for asylum.
On top of the inherent difficulties this process presents, these women face even greater odds since Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision this past June in Matter of A-B- which seeks to limit the availability of asylum for victims of domestic and gang violence.
After going through airport-style security, a guard escorts me to a small visitation room made entirely of clear Plexiglas – crudely constructed for legal visits within a larger open area where the few women fortunate enough to have loved ones close by host visitors. I wait as the women I have been assigned to advise are brought up one by one.
Their cheerfully colored prison-issue T-shirts do little to hide the trauma that lays beneath or the weight of their current circumstances: that they are imprisoned in a foreign land, a land that would very likely send them back to the places, people, and persecution they have fled.
I try to start each interview with easy questions – where are they from, how old, what country. I ask each for their “A” or Alien number, the key form of identification for all immigrants in our legal system. None of them know what I’m talking about even though the number is emblazoned on their name tags. I realize these women, having just arrived in the last few days or weeks, have no concept that this 9-digit number will become more important in this system than their name or their face in the months and even years to come (that is, if they are so lucky to get their asylum claims heard in court).
Some women are able to share their stories right away. “I was raped when I was twelve.” While that single terrible event may not seem related to an asylum claim a decade later, in fact it is. You see, she later had a police officer boyfriend who treated her well at first, but upon learning she was not a virgin, became angry and violent. Nonetheless, he impregnated her. She showed me the scars on her arm from when he poured hot oil on her while she was pregnant. And once, when she tried to leave on a local bus, he caught up with it on a bicycle, pulled her out by her hair, and beat her while threatening to kill her. After all that, she finally broke free.
Others struggle to tell their stories. One haltingly and through sobs explained how she was threatened by a local gang leader who wanted a sexual relationship with her. After initially rejecting him, he cornered her with three other gang members and forced her to come to a house where they gang raped her. She became pregnant. After giving birth to her son, the gang leader started finding her in the streets, taking her to different houses where she was raped by different gang members over a period of years. Each time, they threatened that if she didn’t submit, they would take her cousin instead. When she fled to the United States, she brought her cousin with her, certain that the gang members’ threats were not idle.
Too easily we separate ourselves from the horrors these women have endured, labeling them as “immigrants” or “victims” and looking the other way. Having the privilege of seeing them face to face is a keen reminder that these women’s suffering is not an abstraction that we can divorce from our common humanity.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in describing enslaved women, women from different lands with different colored skin are not some “indefinable mass of flesh,” but rather individuals “whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own.”
What these women have in common, we all have in common. They want safety, autonomy, justice. Don’t we all? While most of us have never had to endure such horrific violence, forced to make the devastating choice of fleeing our homeland, wouldn’t we at least hope to have the same strength and perseverance to escape these situations? Wouldn’t we seek out a place of laws and security and fairness? Would we stay in a country where domestic violence is normalized, where the rape crisis hotlines, the counseling, the social services – all the systems we have come to expect for victims – either do not exist or do not function? These women want nothing more than what we – what I – would want if in their shoes.
Although the current administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric might suggest otherwise, women fleeing violence are entitled to legal protection. A breadth of longstanding domestic and international laws govern the asylum process and remain undisturbed by Matter of A-B-. The women of Hutto deserve the same safety and justice that we expect and that all women deserve. We must not fail them.
Lynn Pearson is a Staff Attorney at the Tahirih Justice Center Atlanta office.