Seeking Asylum Course Explores Themes of Immigration and Asylum, with Visit to Detention Center on US-Mexico Border

In a pilot course this past Spring, students in HIST3670, Seeking Asylum, partnered with the Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP) to provide aid to mothers and children in detention centers along the US-Mexico Border. The course, taught by professor Nara Milanich, explored the history of immigration and asylum in the United States, with the trip to Texas being taken over Spring Break. In an interview, students discussed their experiences in the course and the value of this model of learning.

Interview with Emily Reed, BC ’19, reporting by Lilly Anderson

Families lining up for a meal at Dilley’s South Texas Family Residential Center, one of the largest detention center in the U.S.

What was the historical content of the course?

Before the trip, we did a bunch of readings on the relationship and history between Central America in the US…it was basically about the history of US foreign policy toward the Northern Triangle and Central America through imagery and cartoons and journalism, and sort of all the racist perceptions of Central Americans throughout different stages of U.S. colonization from the Spanish American War to the 80s. One of the interesting parts of the course is that we incorporated oral history. We had Fanny Garcia, an oral historian at the New York Historical Society who did the Oral History program at Columbia, she spearheaded that part of the course and we had a bunch of workshops with oral history. 

Can you tell me about the week you were in Dilley, Texas?

We basically were in the detention center in Dilley from like 7:30 in the morning to 6:30 in the evening, preparing women for credible fear interviews, which is part of the asylum process when you cross and you say that you fear going back to your country so they will flag you for a separate process for asylum, so, if you’re a mother with a child they’ll send you to Dilley to begin the first step of verifying your fear and your case for asylum is to see if you have a reasonable or credible fear… it requires you to divulge the most horrible moments of their lives that could be any type of violence–domestic violence, gang violence, threats to your children’s lives, threats to their own lives. So we were helping them tell those stories in a way that asylum officers would understand and inform them of, “you’re in a detention center in Dilley, Texas, these are the initial steps of seeking asylum, these are the qualifying different protective grounds under asylum”… Basically, almost all of them have very valid reasons to be fleeing their countries, it’s just sometimes, they rightly don’t trust anyone and don’t want to tell their story and don’t understand what they need to do. 

We also ran “charlas” or workshops. The initial one was an intake charla workshop where we tell them, “you crossed, you were detained by border patrol…now you’re in dilley, these are your rights, this is the asylum process,” and people would ask so many questions. I think giving them information about the entire process and following up with them was a really cool part of it. 

How did you prepare for these interviews with victims going through trauma? 

Professor Milanich brought in the head of Furman to talk to us about secondary trauma. The Dilley Pro Bono Project does training the night before, like a 4 hour training on Sunday where they just throw all this info at you about asylum, how the project works, how they do differnt workshops, how you should talk to people. There are also attorneys that you can talk to there when you have questions. Every week they have a new set of volunteers that are college studnets and law students. Except for some staff, every Monday, it’s like everyone is starting for the first time. Buy Tuesday, you really do get into it, you can really dive in and do what is expected of you. 

What was your role in the class? 

We had different roles in the class. I helped put together a glossary with another student where we put together legal terms, historically relevant terms, very recent history of seeking asylum in the US, and I also was a class photographer and helped take some photos…which are now on the front page of the Barnard Website! 

What impact do you think this course had on the Dilley Pro Bono Project and the women you worked with there, as well as on yourself and the students in the class?

I think the DPBP is allowed to do what they do because of volunteers like our group, and we are just one small group that has gone in the maybe 10 years that it has existed… it’s the biggest detention center in the country, up to 3,000 migrant children could be there on any given day, they need volunteers. 

For me, just being able to answer questions they had, whatever the small concerns and fears that they have, in little ways being able to solve those small problems for them and giving them a little piece of mind. The asylum process is so complicated and almost intentionally not transparent that the information the DPBP is giving to these women is radical in the sense that it enables them to have some control over this process and some agency over their stories… Every six months, the Trump administration tries another policy that makes people who are seeking asylum fear to come to the US. It’s incredibly important to work in immigration justice right now, so that’s what I’m trying to do after graduation. This course has definitely put me on that path.

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