Sometimes understanding the ramifications of a situation isn’t apparent until one has experienced it.

That was the case for three University of Wisconsin law students, who traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border at the South Texas Family Residential Center, the country’s largest immigrant family detention center.

At a panel discussion mid-October entitled “The Realities of the Immigration System from a Legal Perspective,” three UW law students — Charis Zimmick, Perla Rubio and Daniela Juarez — who had recently returned from volunteering at the center said it can be hard to truly grasp the impacts of the U.S.’ current immigration policies without witnessing them first-hand.

“Honestly, you have to be there if you really want to know, because there’s no words to describe it,” Rubio said.

These students weren’t novices to the immigration system, but they said being in the detention center and hearing the women’s stories taught them about immigration in a way law school, statistics and the news media hadn’t.

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The detention center, located in Dilley, Texas — just over an hour drive southwest of San Antonio — has a capacity of 2,400 detainees. Despite the facility’s name, they are all women and children. Fathers have always been separated Juarez said.

While the facility was built during the Obama administration, it has taken on new life under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, Juarez said. Previously, she said, women and children requesting asylum would be released on their own recognizance, often with ankle monitors for the women.

Now, the women and children taking the legal step of seeking asylum — officially designed by the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention — are held in detention for days or weeks until a “credible fear interview,” when an immigration officer evaluates their story to determine whether they might have a viable asylum claim. Most of these women, the students said, were from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

The trip was organized by the Latino Law Student Association and the Immigrant Justice Clinic. Overall, 10 people went on the trip from Madison — one professor, seven law students, one PhD student and one undergraduate student. 

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The students served as volunteers with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. Their job was to help prepare the women for their interviews, which meant helping them decide what parts of their experience were most relevant to mention to the immigration officers. Asylum law is very specific, Zimmick said, and without guidance, immigrants who are unfamiliar with the law may fail to mention the very part of their story that could qualify them for asylum.

The presenters repeatedly emphasized the stranglehold organized crime and domestic violence held on many communities. Zimmick said that, before the trip she thought of immigrants as coming to the U.S. for a better life. Now she realized many are literally trying to survive.

“The conversations that we had — it was a whole other level beyond what I could have comprehended,” Zimmick said.

The three students said it took patience, sensitivity and some very careful listening to get the full story. Though the sessions were supposed to last 45 minutes, they often spent three hours in a single one-on-one session. And while they all spoke Spanish, they sometimes found they were not speaking the same language.

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Zimmick said they would start their conversations with the women by asking if they had ever been sexually assaulted. The response was often, “no.”

“Then three hours later we would find out that her husband rapes her every night and then on weekends he brings over his friends and they can do what they want with her, but that’s her husband,” Zimmick said. “That’s her job.”

Addressing the audience, Zimmick said her job was to help the women, for whom violence had become normal, understand what these terms meant. They taught women what rape was, she said.

Rubio said as she spoke with one woman, she felt sure something was missing.

She made one last attempt to connect with the woman, reassuring her that she could tell her the truth. The woman began crying as she recounted what had really happened, admitting that she was scared her husband would come looking for her if he found out what she had said.

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They learned that for many women, the decision to go north was a quick one, based on a sudden threat rather than years of planning.

“It wasn’t like they’d been planning this for three years and had been able to save up money and have the means to buy a bus ticket or provisions or a cell phone to take with them,” Rubio said. “This was, ‘They broke in my house a pointed a gun at my two-year-old, so that night I took all my things and we left.'”

That meant the trip was even more dangerous, harming most of them along the way, Juarez said. 

Rubio said some women had to choose which child to bring with them, either because they couldn’t pay for everyone’s trip or because they couldn’t take care of all of them on the long trip.

The time in the detention center took a toll on all the students.

“I didn’t believe in secondary trauma,” Rubio said. “I come from Mexico, I’ve seen violence and gang activity and stuff. But when I went there, I was in shock.”

But more powerful than the women’s trauma was their strength.

Zimmick described the women as “very courageous,” saying the trip from Central America through Mexico was “a big risk in and of itself.”

“It was really sad, but at the same time, how brave that she’s going to come because she wants to save her children’s life,” Rubio said. 

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Zimmick said Pentecostals in Honduras spoke out regularly against gang violence. At the detention center, she spoke with some who would sing praises to Jesus at the park each Saturday while the gang members looked on with their guns or put knives to their backs at the bus stop.

“I was just blown away by their bravery and strength to stand up to a gang member like that,” Zimmick said.

The women often had their children with them while they were preparing for the interview.

Zimmick said she regularly reminded the children how brave their mothers were for making the trip.

“We would tell them, ‘Your mom is so strong. This is the last step. There’s one more officer to talk to, then you get to go,’” Zimmick said.

Despite the challenges of the trip, the panelists said it was worth it.

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Zimmick said she would never forget the faces or the stories of the women she spoke to.

The students said they were beginning to fundraise for their next trip to Dilley and were looking for others to join them. Passing around a sign-up sheet for potential volunteers, Zimmick said the trips offer an opportunity for students to put their legal education to use before graduation.

“A law degree is such a privilege, an education is such a privilege,” she said. “To be able to use that to help advocate for someone in their most desperate time of life — that’s why I came to law school.”