Stanford students help refugees with their asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border

In a new Spanish immersion class, Stanford students apply their language skills to helping detained Spanish-speaking asylum seekers in Texas prepare for credible fear interviews.

When asylum seekers arrive at the United States border, the first step upon arrival is the credible fear interview, a one-hour screening with an immigration official to establish whether there is a “significant possibility” that they suffered persecution or torture in their home country. If they fail to make a convincing case, they will be deported almost immediately.

Lily Foulkes traveled to Dilley, Texas, at the end of the spring quarter and is now writing a senior honors thesis about the connection between Latin American asylum and the history of private immigration detention centers. (Image credit: Trever Tachis)

Often asylum seekers fail the interview not because they lack a legitimate claim, but simply because they don’t know what information is legally relevant, said Penelope Van Tuyl, the associate director of Stanford’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice.

To help asylum seekers prepare for their interviews, Van Tuyl – along with Vivian Brates, a lecturer in Spanish at the Stanford Language Center – has taken Stanford students to the largest immigrant detention center in the United States to volunteer with the Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP), an organization that offers pro-bono legal services to mothers and children who have fled extreme violence in Central America and elsewhere. There, volunteers talk with asylum seekers – usually in Spanish – to learn more about the basis for their claim of eligibility for asylum in the United States.

It can be difficult for asylum seekers to substantiate their claims under the different policies and procedures the government requires, said Stanford senior and history major Lily Foulkes.

To be eligible for asylum in the U.S., applicants must have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

“The asylum claim might not be obvious,” said Foulkes, who volunteered for DPBP as part of Migration, Asylum and Human Rights at the U.S. Mexico Border, taught by Brates as a companion course to an advanced Spanish language immersion course. The courses – which include guest sessions led by Van Tuyl and others – were offered in the spring and fall quarters and will be taught again in winter.

The quarter culminates with a week at the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, a remote town 85 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. There, students work long days putting into practice their Spanish language skills while helping detained Spanish-speaking women prepare for their credible fear interview.

“When you start talking to them more, you start to realize there is a lot more to those stories,” said Foulkes. “Everyone has some kind of story that can help them pass the credible fear interview and we need to figure out what that is.”

Foulkes remembers one case vividly.

A woman and two of her three children had just fled from El Salvador because members of the powerful international gang MS-13 had threatened her and her family.

“I was a little bit nervous about proving that it was still ongoing because it seemed to me like there was only one threat,” Foulkes recalled.

“Sometimes people don’t know. They are told they should just go and they go,” Foulkes said.

Someone suggested that Foulkes try talking to the woman’s other son, who had remained in El Salvador, to see if there was any additional information to add to the persecution claim. When Foulkes reached the other son by telephone, it was clear that the family’s safety was still at risk.

“The son just started bawling, saying a gang member had just come to their house a week before, threatening to cut off different parts of his body and asking specifically where his mother was,” Foulkes said.

Because of the telephone call that Foulkes helped facilitate, the woman’s asylum claim was stronger, Foulkes said.

“But nothing about that made me feel good,” Foulkes said. “She found out that her son could be murdered potentially any day.” Foulkes is now writing a senior honors thesis about the connection between Latin American asylum and the history of private immigration detention centers.

Working around and against the clock

At Dilley, Stanford students listened to stories similar to the experiences Foulkes heard.

The idea to volunteer for the Dilley Pro Bono Project originated from Emma Glickman, a human biology major. (Image credit: Trever Tachis)

“It’s the harshest reality I’ve ever had to encounter,” recalled Stanford senior Emma Glickman about her experiences in Dilley.

“Every day there is an absolute grind,” she said.

Each day starts early and ends late. Volunteers must arrive at the residential center by 7:30 a.m. Meetings with clients start at 8 a.m. and end at 8 p.m. Debriefs with the project’s lawyers and other caseworkers sometimes make their day run much longer.

Throughout the day, student volunteers would sometimes deliver short presentations in Spanish that explained the asylum process to the women held at the center. Other times, they would meet with asylum seekers individually to prepare them for their interviews that often were scheduled for that afternoon or the following day.

In these conversations, women would recount abuse like sexual assault and torture. In some instances, their local police could not be relied upon because they too were either scared or, sometimes, corrupted by local gangs.

“It’s scary even to talk to someone in English about that stuff,” Foulkes said.

Preparing students for difficult conversations

The courses prepare students for the work in Dilley in a variety of ways.

Freshman Fernando Vazquez took the Migration, Asylum and Human Rights at the U.S.-Mexico Border companion courses in fall quarter and volunteered at the detention center in December. (Image credit: Trever Tachis)

Throughout the quarter, students examine the problems that have forced so many Central Americans to leave their countries, from the origins of MS-13 to other issues such as forced gang recruitment, extortion, poverty and the lack of opportunity in the region.

To prepare for some of these difficult discussions that Foulkes, Glickman and other volunteers will encounter throughout their time in Dilley, students spend a full two weeks conducting mock interviews based on real case studies.

In addition, guest speakers, including refugees from Central America who have survived incredibly violent situations, talk to the class about these experiences. Former students also talk about their experiences volunteering at the residential center in Dilley.

Mental health is addressed throughout the quarter, including a discussion of secondary trauma, to help students recognize and manage their emotions.

“There’s as much social and emotional learning that’s important to this as there is Spanish and law preparation,” Van Tuyl said.

For freshman Fernando Vazquez, who traveled to Dilley in December, it also makes a difference to perceive these women as more than victims of abuse. They are incredibly brave, he said.

“These families have already gone through a lot. For these families to have the willpower to travel across a whole country to get here, it’s just powerful,” Vazquez said. “One of the things I want to say is that these people are heroes.”