Paw'd Defiance

Credible Fear

May 01, 2019 UW Tacoma Professor Marian Harris and UW Tacoma MSW student Zea Mendoza. Season 1 Episode 8
Paw'd Defiance
Credible Fear
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Paw'd Defiance
Credible Fear
May 01, 2019 Season 1 Episode 8
UW Tacoma Professor Marian Harris and UW Tacoma MSW student Zea Mendoza.

UW Tacoma Professor Marian Harris and graduate student Zea Mendoza spent a week helping women and children held at an immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas prepare for their credible fear hearings. Harris and Mendoza talk about their experience at the facility including what they saw and heard. They also talk about how the work impacted them on a personal level.

Show Notes Transcript

UW Tacoma Professor Marian Harris and graduate student Zea Mendoza spent a week helping women and children held at an immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas prepare for their credible fear hearings. Harris and Mendoza talk about their experience at the facility including what they saw and heard. They also talk about how the work impacted them on a personal level.

Marian Harris:

It's really in my DNA to hug people, to be affectionate, to reach out and take their hand. We couldn't do that with any of the people that we interviewed. It's against the detention facility policy.

Maria Crisostomo:

From UW Tacoma, this is Paw'd Defiance. Hello everyone, and welcome to Paw'd Defiance, where we don't lecture but we do educate. I'm Maria Crisostomo. Today we're talking with UW Tacoma Professor Marian Harris and Zea Mendoza, a graduate student in the Master of Social Work Program here at UW Tacoma. Zea and Dr. Harris spent a week at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. There, they provided social services to women and children housed at the immigrant detention facility. Dr. Marian Harris, Zea Mendoza, thank you for joining us.

Marian Harris:

I'm Marian Harris, and I'm a professor of social work at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Zea Mendoza:

I'm Zea Mendoza. I'm a student in the Master's in Social Work Program at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Maria Crisostomo:

Why did you decide to make this trip to the detention facility?

Marian Harris:

I decided to volunteer, and go to Dilley, Texas to work with the CARA Project, which is a pro-bono project, because frankly, I was tired of the rhetoric that was coming from this administration regarding immigrants.

Zea Mendoza:

They invited Dr. Harris and when she told me, "Hey, are you willing to go to Texas?" I said "right away," because I've been following the news, you know, since I think last year, you know, when we started hearing about family separation and all these zero tolerance policies as well. I became very concerned about the situation that the immigrants are facing, you know, down there at the border. And when I got the invitation from Dr. Harris, I was like, "yes, I'm going with you."

Maria Crisostomo:

So what work did you do over there?

Marian Harris:

During our time there, I actually got to do psychologicals and in order to do those , one has to be licensed as an independent clinical social worker. And I'm licensed here in Washington state and in two other states. But we also did interviewing and preparation of mothers for their credible fear hearings. And this is a hearing where the hearing officer, or judge decides if an individual can stay in this country and seek asylum.

Zea Mendoza:

Basically we were helping the clients that we chose from the list to prepare for the credible fear interview, which it is a situation where these women have to describe why they left their countries, why they were persecuted, why they didn't get help from their, you know, governments and why they are afraid to come back. And basically, these women are so traumatized, and the stories are so long, or so complex that sometimes they are not able to articulate all these facts in a logical order. And the only way that they can, you know, make sense of their own s tories is with the help of volunteers. So, our job was to help them to prepare for t his i nterview by listening to their stories and highlighting the areas that can be important for the court h earing and this project is processing around 500 women a w eek. So, basically it is our job to prepare one client e very two hours on a verage, which is kind of a challenge because their stories are so long and so complex. Sometimes they require more time, but t hat's kind of the situation t hat we, you know, faced over there at this o ther d etention center. How to p repare, you know, as many women as we c ould, you know, with that limited time.

Maria Crisostomo:

So when you were there, what are some of the things that you were experiencing?

Marian Harris:

Our first interview that we did together. After the interview I broke down and cried. And the reason was it basically traumatized me. I was very upset after listening to the mother that Zea and I interviewed, she told us her story of coming from a country in Central America t o o ur country and a ll o f the difficulty that she had prior to arriving at the family residential facility in D illey. She told us about being caged literally with 29 other people. Men and women, and little children, a cage together f or f our days without food, without water, and that to me was just devastating. Having been born and reared in this country, it was just very hard for me to imagine that human beings could do that to another human being, to deny anyone food or water. And we have lots of food and water i n this country, including at the border and to deny a child a drink of water? That to me is just i nhumane.

Zea Mendoza:

Well, this, you know, I experienced, the same kind of secondary trauma, because, you know, hearing all these stories is very impacting, and thus an interpreter, you know, these mothers were talking to me and looking at me because they knew that I was the one, that could understand their language. And as I share with Dr. Harris later, I felt like I was getting most of the trauma directly, you know, directed to me because they were crying and looking at me, and I was receiving all these feelings. And then my job was translated into different languages, would put it in English and, and tried to find the words, that can describe the, you know, their situations. And in a different language, which is complicated. So, it took a toll on me at the end of the day. It was hard to sleep and it was hard to, you know, take all these feelings and thoughts out of my mind, you know, to be able to sleep. It was very hard because the stories are very impacting, very traumatizing and listening to these stories from the mouth of the mother with the children present and the children were actually, supporting that story or can jump in, "yes, that will happen" and "this other thing happened" and "do you remember mom, when all these other things happened" and it is is very hard to hear not just from the mom, but also from the children. And the language, you know, has that emotional connection, that it was, you know, transmitted to me as an interpreter and it was very, very hard for me too.

Maria Crisostomo:

So how was your first experience like walking the first day into the center? Can you describe that?

Zea Mendoza:

I can describe, my first experience, I led Dr. Harris to the airport. I still have it fresh in my mind, you know, going through security, and after all the electronics and all the stuff is being, you know, inspected and taken out because we cannot take any recording devices or any kind of big cameras or cell phones. Then, we are, you know, we were directed to these big, big room where all the women were waiting for us as their only option, their only help that they could get. And as soon as the doors were up, and I just saw a lot, a lot of women there, dressed with the sweat pants and bright yellow hoodies because they are the only clothes that the facility provides them and children a having these tags around their necks with numbers, and they are supposed to wear those tags and in groups, you know, waiting for the nine appointment or the twelve appointment or the one appointment and big, big groups. So I think for every appointment we saw probably more than 50 to 100 women waiting probably.

Maria Crisostomo:

So you had about 50 people to see every day.

Zea Mendoza:

Yes. And there were lists of, eh, cases and names, poster in, in that big room. And it was just about as a volunteer, it was just about to choose, you know, your client. And I remember looking at all those names, I'm having to choose a client. It was hard, because I wanted to get everybody, but knowing that I was going to be helping just one at a time was hard.

Maria Crisostomo:

So do you just choose or you know, do they just come up to you or is there a list?

Zea Mendoza:

It was a list and I chose names, and those were the names that we help.

Marian Harris:

There is a list. However, the afternoon of the first day, I was asked if I would do a psychological the next day, and I said yes. And this was a special case. It was a woman who had gone before the judge two times, and he had denied her, requests to seek asylum both times. And so I knew that what I wrote in my psychological, her life depended on it.

Maria Crisostomo:

So I want to go back to the psychological, you we talking about what was the turnout?

Marian Harris:

It was a very positive turnout. As I stated this woman had gone to court twice and received a negative ruling in her request to seek asylum. And I asked Cindy, the attorney who was representing her, to please let Zea, and I know the decision of the judge and we left, we were there for a week. We left on Saturday to come back here, and the hearing was going to be on Monday, the following Monday after we got back. Otherwise, I would have gone to the hearing if it had been during the week that we were there. And I was sitting at my desk and turned my computer on and there was an email, stating thank you. Thank you. The judge read the first narrative page of your psychological and stated that he did not need to read anymore and he gave a positive ruling. And I have to say, I was by myself in my office and I cried, because for me it meant that I had changed somebody's life in a positive way. And that's what social work is all about. But I wanted to tell you about how I felt when I first enter the detention center. I had been, in the past, to prisons for women and for men, and I thought that we were actually going to go to a building. Instead, it was a trailer, and we walked in and I had my laptop, I had a note pad, a couple of pens, and I think that's it. [I had] my briefcase and I had to take that out because the only way you could enter the facility with things still in a backpack or a briefcase, it has to be plastic and see through. And my briefcase is a brown leather briefcase. And so I took all of my belongings out, walked through the metal detector, and of course, my boots set it off. And so they had to scan my body, and then we had to sign for and pick up our belongings. And then we entered the room where all of the women and their children were. And frankly, it was overwhelming when I walked in and I saw all these women and all of these children. In addition to that, um, our week there was very unusual. They had more volunteers than they've ever had. In addition to us. We were part of a group of volunteers. We partnered with a social work faculty and students from UCLA, and law faculty and students. But there were also a group of volunteers from Microsoft. They were not social workers or psychologists, but they were Spanish speaking. And so that group was there, there was a group from another school, a part of the group that we were with. I remember there was an attorney from New York. There were two attorneys from Kentucky and so they had quite a few volunteers.

Maria:

Dr. Harris and Zea Mendoza traveled with a group from UW , UW Tacoma and UCLA to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. They volunteer as part of the CARA Family Detention pro-bono project, which provides legal assistance to women and children at the facility. Dr. Harris and Zea were in Dilley from February 17 to February 22nd of this year. Why did you choose social work?

Zea Mendoza:

Well, I decided to be a social worker because I'm an immigrant myself, and I came to this country, you know, for kind of the same reasons that all these women, I wanted to have a better life for me, for my children and I wanted to make a difference for other people. Social work seemed like the best option for me because that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people. And once I started the program, I found out that some areas really, really need help. And some other ones. A lot of people, you know, are getting help already. In terms of immigration, that in my personal opinion is the area that has been most neglected and there's so much to do. And I don't know if maybe in the last two or three years it's getting more attention but is being neglected by every, you know, professional, not just social workers. And as soon as I a get invited to this project, it seemed right to me that there was a perfect opportunity to get some help to, you know, these immigrants really, really needed. And if there's no volunteers around, they wouldn't have any chance and they would be sent back to their countries.

Maria:

Can you describe your everyday life in the center? How was that?

Marian Harris:

The day started usually around 8:30. We arrived , we would go through security and the day was planned out. For example, as I stated, I was asked to do the psychological on a Monday afternoon, and Zea and I waited there to actually meet the attorney who was requesting that I do the psychological, and we met with Cindy. She briefed us a little about the case and that was the first client that we saw on Tuesday. It took me five hours to do that psychological, and one of the things that I was struck by was the fact that there was a toddler who accompanied the mother to this interview and I asked, Zea ask this child if she wanted a break, if she wanted water, if she wanted snacks. This child said no. And what that said to me was how resilient this little girl was. She knew that it was important, what was being said during this interview. And she sat there. I mean, she smiled at me the entire time, and it's really in my DNA, to hug people, to be affectionate, to reach out and take their hand. We couldn't do that with any of the people that we interview. It's against the detention facility policy. If we had touched anyone, if we had hugged anyone, we would have been escorted out of the facility and not allowed to come back. There are cameras everywhere. They are watching and listening to everything that you do and everything that you say. And it's very difficult to be interviewing a client and the client starts crying and not to reach out and comfort that person. I mean it goes against social work values and social work principles, but we did what we had to do.

Maria:

The news that we see every day. Is that how accurate it is in the center?

Marian Harris:

Well, they don't have volunteers every day and so we don't really know , because we were not allowed outside of that trailer. One of the attorneys attempted to go out the back door because he too, like me wanted to see where the clients live. I wanted to see the school. I wanted to see the preschool, and we were not allowed to see those things. In fact, they told us to look at pictures up on the wall. Someone had done some paintings when they first opened this detention facility, and I don't know, because I couldn't go outside of the trailer, what it looks like. Even when you're standing out in the parking lot, I tried to look around , because I wanted to see what was going on. Everything is covered up literally.

Maria Crisostomo:

Wow. So, the volunteers never get to see that. Only the people who were there?

Marian Harris:

I thought, you know, and they did background checks on us before we could go. They did a background check on every volunteer and I thought, because I wasn't a student because I am a professional and a professor that they would allow me to tour the facility. And I was actually told by Cindy, the attorney that I worked with, that even the attorneys were not allowed to tour the facilities. So they have never seen the actual residential facilities where our clients live. I can say from talking to clients, they do have a bed to sleep on, and they didn't have a bed at the cage that I mentioned. They do have food to eat. They have snacks, um, kids go to school.

Maria:

Yeah. The reason why I was asking that question is because I've seen the news lately, and I mean, I don't know how much of that is so accurate. I've seen parts where there's kids that have aluminum foil covering all over them.

Marian Harris:

And that's true. That does not happen at the residential facility where we were. We were at the largest family residential facility in the US. And the positive thing about that facility is that women and their children are not separated. All the children there are with their moms. And that's not the case at the facilities where women, men and children are caged.

Maria:

So can you describe more about the psychological that you do?

Marian Harris:

I was actually assessing for post traumatic stress syndrome, which this mom and probably all of the moms. Of course I didn't assess all moms, but it was very clear. There are five different parts to the psychological and it asks a whole battery of questions. Everything from questions, uh, regarding events have traumatize you, early on, up to the present time and just asking all of these questions, which are invasive. I mean, being interviewed for five hours. But for me, I forgot about the fact that it was going to take a long time. I was more focused on being very detailed because I knew that this was going to a judge and it was going to determine whether this mom and her child get to seek asylum in this country. And so I was very specific in asking these questions and following up to make sure that I understood what the client was saying to me in addition to assessing for, I also assessed this mother's mental health status to make sure if she had a mental illness that I did diagnose that. And of course she was depressed and rightfully so. I mean, who wouldn't be to leave your country of origin and come here and then be subjected to being literally caged without food for four days? That would traumatize me.

Maria:

So I kind of want to go back to the question where you said that you had to pick and choose which clients you basically, you know, helped. How was that process like?

Zea Mendoza:

It is heartbreaking because knowing we were in the largest detention center in the country and the capacity is officially 2,400 women and children. But in reality, we never know how many children, how many women are there. And, and knowing, we were there to just to help a few of them because they have no other option. There's nobody else that can go there and help them a as a pro-bono services or volunteers, you know, their cases are depending on volunteers. And even when we were part of a big group that week in knowing that not all of them, were going to get that help is really hard. And, but then we, you know, chose some of them and we tried to really help them as much as we could instead of getting too many that we couldn't help at all. So at least we got help some of them.

Marian Harris:

Zea would go and look on the list and I let her select the clients that we were going to work with. We were actually committed to literally doing everything that we possibly could for the clients that we worked with. And we made a commitment to two of the moms that we worked with. I actually gave them my business card stating that when you're released from this detention center, this is my name, this is my address at my job, please contact me and I will help you. And we have actually heard from one of the women and I actually sent out last week a call to the UWT faculty staff and students for clothing and shoes for this woman and her children. They have been released from the detention center and, have relocated to Texas. A large city in Texas. And I'm actually going to go and visit them at the end of the quarter and connect with social services in this city. But I was talking to a colleague from the research center on our campus this morning. And she was saying that she was going to respond to my call for clothing and shoes for this family. And the question that she posed to me was, well, what about all the other families who don't have someone like you? And they're just out there because can you imagine being in this country, you don't know anybody and you don't speak English and you don't have an advocate.

Maria:

So I want to touch base on your experiences now, you coming back. How, how have you, how has it changed your life?

Marian Harris:

I knew that when I went to Texas, that I was going to be traumatized. I did not know what I would find there. But I knew that I would be traumatized and I was, and I, prior to going, I actually talk with a psychiatrist. And since I've been back, I've met with him and I'm glad that I made a plan for myself.

Maria:

What about you?

Zea Mendoza:

Well, since I came back, every time that I hear the news I feel it very, very personal because it is, it is, you know, where everything has been describing, the news is happening. And it doesn't seem right that we are treating immigrants this way because they are asylum seekers and they are women and children that are already traumatized and very vulnerable and being, you know, in custody, it doesn't seem right to me is, seems like, it's totally against the values of this country or what this country promote and I tried to stay away from every kind of politics or whatever, but just, you know, by the human side you don't do this to another human and you don't do these kind of atrocities to children and women that I thought that they have suffered a lot already. And you know, seeing them in custody, it is not what we are supposed to do.

Maria:

So how now that you've come back and you're teaching again, and have you talked anything about your experiences in class?

Marian Harris:

I actually have talked in generalities about my experiences. We had a conference on our campus on March 27th that focused on children of incarcerated parents and Zea, and I did the closing plenary about our experiences at the border. And we had one of the conference participants to come up to us after the conference saying out of the whole conference, the one thing that was going to stick with us with her was our experience at the border. What can we do? Is there something that, as Tacoma, we can do? I think that letting people in your professional circles and in your personal circles know that women and children have a right to seek asylum, these women and children who are seeking asylum are not murderers. They're not criminals. They're not drug dealers. They're not rapists. In fact, a large number of these mothers are sexual assault survivors because they themselves have been raped multiple times. And so dispelling some of the myths and people are coming here seeking asylum for a better life for themselves and their children. And moms don't want the awful things that have been perpetuated upon them to be perpetuated upon their children. And people need to know that. Hi everyone. It's Maria. I want you to talk with you about a project by UW Tacoma assistant professors Rachel Hirshberg and Vanessa de Veritch Woodside. The project documents experiences of immigrants and refugees who have been detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Hirshberg and de Veritch Woodside conducted interviews with people who have either been detained at the center or who traveled to the US without documentation but received some form of legal status. The paired partnered with Tacoma Community House, Aid Northwest and World Relief Seattle. You can find out more by visiting the UW Tacoma website and typing "telling their stories" into the search bar.

Maria:

Can you describe some of the things that you heard when you were in the center?

Marian Harris:

Oh, one of the things said, I heard on my last day there. Zea and I had planned to and we had, we have finished our work at five o'clock that Friday afternoon and we were packing up our things and getting ready to leave. And, uh, we were asked by a colleague, uh, please talk to this woman. She needs to talk to somebody. And I notice that she had an infant in her arms and I'm not a medical doctor, but I knew that this baby was sick and there was also a 10 year old child who was with her. And we put our stuff down and we proceeded to talk to her. And what she said to us was that the baby was sick, the baby had been ill all night. The baby had a fever and the baby really needed to see the doctor. And she had taken the baby to the doctor, to the clinic, the night before and had been given an Ibuprofen to give the baby and a small little cup of pedialyte. And she asked if we would call her family. And I asked Zea to ask her what does she want us to say to her family? And she said she wanted us ask her family to send money in order for her to go to the store. And I asked Zea to ask her what store, cause you know, they're in a detention center and I was trying to figure out what store she's talking about. And she thought that there was a store on the grounds of the detention center. And so I asked to go over to the desk to the guard to ask if there was a store on the grounds and the guard told Zea to tell me no. And then my next response was to ask the guard if this woman can see a doctor, this baby is sick. And the guard told Zea to tell me that I should not be believing everything that I hear from clients, which goes against my training. Because social workers are taught to start where the client is. She believes the client, unless you have some reason not to. But to make a long story short, what ended up happening was the guard realized that we were not going to leave until this baby was seen by a doctor. She picked up her phone and Zea could understand what she was saying because she was speaking in Spanish to the doctor telling him that this professor and a student are here and they're not going to leave unless you see this baby. And the doctor agreed that he would see the baby. But my other issue about this is if he knew that this child was that sick, why didn't he really do something proactive to help this baby?

Maria:

Thank you to our guests and a big thanks to our senior lecturer, Nicole Blair for letting us play your music on the show. Thank you to Moon Yard recording studio and thank you for joining us today. Be sure to subscribe and go to iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, and Pocket Casts.