SMU Law Professor Nanasi and Students Assist Detained Women & Children in Karnes Family Detention Center

March 12, 2017

Instead of going to the beach over Spring Break, eight law students accompanied by Professor Natalie Nanasi head to the Karnes Family Immigration Detention Center near San Antonio to staff a pop-up clinic for immigrant women and children. Two students volunteered to document their experience on this blog. No photos are allowed inside the facility.


March 15, 2017
Joshua Karam – 3L, SMU Dedman School of Law

The Karnes City Family Detention Center could best be described as resembling a scene from “Orange is the New Black.” The detention center’s grounds contain fences, guards, large white cinder-block walls and windowless visitation rooms. However, instead of having Red cooking in the kitchen or Alex and Piper walking the grounds while Tasty and Crazy Eyes laugh about some outlandish joke, there are children present. Children of all ages can be seen here playing with toys and reading books in their native tongues. They are confused – they were told that upon arrival into our country they would be reunited with their families and be free from fear and danger. Yet here they are, detained. As they attempt to play, their mothers meet with volunteers and attorneys in multiple visitation rooms, pouring out their deepest and most disturbing memories of how they have been persecuted in their homelands and how their desire for a better life for their children drove them to flee their home countries. They are thrown into a process where they are unable to navigate our complex legal system and all they want is to be heard and helped. Helped by people who understand the process. Helped by those able to give them a voice and a fighting chance to seek what they so long for and desire – Freedom.

Amidst a very politically charged time in our country, it is easy to get wrapped up in the political division. The question most are asked result in the categorization of people as either Democrat or Republican and Clinton or Trump. Regardless of which side of the spectrum you reside on, humanitarian aid is a belief that all can relate to. People seeking asylum in this country do not care whether you proudly boast red or blue, or whether you prefer donkeys to elephants – they just want to be treated like human beings. They just want to be spoken to with respect. They want help – they want to get their families and children away from living in constant fear.

Their fear is something neither you nor I could possibly comprehend. It is a type of fear that would propel someone to drop everything they have and leave behind the certainty and comfort of their homeland. Mind you, those fleeing are not just the poor and uneducated. Many women in this center are university educated – having studied languages, education, economics, finance, and even politics, before leaving their degrees and classrooms behind for fear of persecution. There are also the poorest of the poor detained in this center – women who left behind family homes that they’ve had for years, their only security, to escape the persecution that they faced daily. There are women with a large distrust toward strangers because of their past experiences of rape and violence. They are women living in constant and unimaginable fear.

This fear is a type that compels families to walk hundreds of miles through rainforests, drift across uncharted waters on small floatation devices, and even subject themselves to hours of discomfort by driving across multiple borders in the trunks of vehicles. Take a step back from politics. Take a step back from evaluating the economic response to these actions. And think about the fear that would drive families to uproot their lives and navigate through the unknown, unsure of what lies before them, but gambling everything they have because it is better and safer than what is behind them.

“Land of the free, and home of the brave.” We are surrounded by brave men and women every day. The men and women who give their life to protect our nation, teachers who devote their life to educating the public and doctors who give their all to aid the sick. We are a nation that proudly honors the brave. And what I have seen in Karnes City, Texas is bravery exhibited amongst women and children in a way that I have never witnessed before. I encourage you to come witness the bravery. I implore you to help in any way that you can – to help find a solution, whatever you believe that may be. I ask that you not try to push some political agenda, but to expose yourself to the true issues surrounding immigration – how to help human beings start over and attain safety. I encourage anyone and everyone reading this to become inspired to help these women and children during a time when they have no one advocating for them, a time of uncertainty and fear. Come spread hope. Hope for a new life; hope for safety; hope to be reunited with families and loved ones; and hope for one day, to legally attain safety and freedom in the United States of America.

March 17, 2017
Alyssa Morrison – 2L, SMU Dedman School of Law

Over spring break, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Karnes City, Texas. On Sunday, Professor Nanasi, seven  fellow students and I met at SMU, and departed from Dallas to travel 5 hours south to a family immigration detention center. If you google it you’ll find a website for the ‘Karnes County Residential Center.” In reality the facility, which is operated by the GEO group, is run more like a prison than a ‘residential center,’ and the women and children who find themselves there are certainly treated more like prisoners than ‘residents.’

Prior to our week on the grounds at Karnes, I felt prepared. I have worked on the humanitarian side of immigration law before, and I thought I was ready for the shock that we would feel and the stories that we would hear. Oftentimes, we don’t realize the importance of a moment or an experience until some-time after it has passed, but this was not one of those times. Although I had come into the experience feeling prepared, there was one moment that knocked the air out of my lungs and will forever serve as the lens through which I will remember this spring break. 

A significant part of our work at Karnes consisted of helping women prepare for their “credible fear interviews’”(CFIs). The credible fear interview is a process by which an asylum officer interviews the detained individual to determine if there is a significant possibility that they could, when the time comes, articulate a successful asylum claim. If the asylum officer gives a negative result in the CFI interview, then the individual seeking asylum can file a lengthy declaration that will be presented to a judge and request that the judge vacate the negative credible fear determination and replace it with a positive. On Tuesday, I was assigned a declaration for a woman from Central America. It was clear from the notes of her CFI interview that she had not adequately articulated her circumstances. She was exhausted, confused, and worried about her sick children, and she had left out the most crucial parts of her claim. It was also clear that she had not been permitted to fully explain certain answers.

A fellow student and I called her in and sat with her for several hours as she told us her full story, and we left the room feeling confident that we had a strong basis for a positive CFI determination. In the sometimes backwards world of asylum law, the worse the story, the better. Her story began with sexual assault as a child and was littered with continued sexual assault, severe physical violence, and threats on her life and the lives of her children.

We prepared our client for the next phase of her case and the sort of questions that the judge would almost certainly ask, and we prepared ourselves to give a closing argument in her defense. Notably, we would not be permitted to do any more than this closing argument; unlike other court settings, the judge was the only one permitted to question or conduct a “direct examination” of the client.

It was clear from the first question that the judge asked that the result was not going to be favorable. When the judge had finished questioning our client and closing arguments had been given, she spent several minutes building to why she would ultimately affirm the negative CFI result. This explanation made clear that the judge had misunderstood, or chose not to hear, key parts of our client’s circumstances, and for the rest of my life, I will never forget the moment that the judge issued her ruling, which would mean almost certain deportation for our client.

I watched another human being absolutely crumble in front of my eyes. She begged the judge to help her in her native Spanish language, and in response the judge hung up the video chat. This was one of the most raw moments of my life. This woman had just lost all hope of safety and providing a life for her young daughters that wouldn’t be filled with the same violations that she had endured since her early childhood.

This is why this work is important. If this woman is deported, which she almost certainly will be, she will face the very real possibility of death, or a life where her rights will continue to be violated in the most vicious of ways. She, like nearly all of the women detained with her, came to this country because after looking at her circumstances, it seemed safer to leave behind everything and everyone she had ever known, make a treacherous journey that claims the lives of hundreds of immigrants every year, and enter a country where by all appearances, she was not welcome. Think about that. Think about the fierceness of a mother’s protection and the desperation that a person must feel in order to make that decision.

This work is timely. We are living in an era of heated debate about immigration and the policies that surround it. It is easy to think of immigration in black and white terms – legal or illegal; good or bad. This approach makes things simple, and if you choose to take it you get to forget the incredible nuance of the situation and ignore the stories of the women who, like my client, deserve a chance at a safe life and a little bit of basic human decency and understanding. It is a righteous endeavor to give a voice to the voiceless and it is absolutely crucial that we continue to strive to tell these women’s stories, and that we refuse to stop telling them until the world is willing to listen.

About Kristy Offenburger

AA-Law(Law Development)
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