After orientation and training, the UCLA team headed to the South Texas Family Residential Center. (Photographers and journalists are not allowed inside the detention center, so this part of the story is told through the eyes and experiences of the volunteers.)
Each day, the names of all volunteers are checked off a list and IDs are checked. Bags pass through screening, and bodies are scanned with an electronic wand. Just 15 steps separate freedom from confinement as volunteers make their way to the project’s workspace inside the detention center.
Watch a video in which UCLA volunteers talk about their heart-breaking interactions with refugee families
Serna and Gonzalez said their first impression was seeing “color everywhere” — a sea of fluorescent pink, red, brown, blue, purple and neon green sweatshirts and jackets supplied at the facility because the clothes were inexpensive and the mothers and children are institutionalized. “You see that and you know: These are not people that are free,” Miyashita Ochoa said.
Then came the sounds of children running, crying, playing — all speaking Spanish.
The interviews with detainees sometimes took place over a period of days, four or five hours at a time, seeking to establish credible fear qualifications so the detainees could apply for asylum. The meetings took place in private rooms, usually with the children present, and without Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel.
The volunteers struggled to reconcile themselves to a process in which the definition of success — getting a positive in the credible fear interview — required retraumatizing women and children as they recounted the brutality that led them to flee their home countries.
Each night, the volunteers spent hours compiling notes to assist asylum seekers during their final interviews with government officials. In several cases, the UCLA Luskin volunteers sat in on final hearings.
The evidence in almost every case proved that the immigrants weren’t seeking handouts or simply a better life for their families, according to the volunteers. Rather, they sought safety for themselves and their children — a chance to stay alive.
At first, Hernandez was surprised that the detainees wanted their children in the room during the interviews.
“And then I had to remind myself that these kids lived everything that was coming out of the mothers’ mouths,” she said. “It wasn’t news to them. People entered their homes with guns and threatened them, too.”
Hernandez, whose academic focus is juvenile justice, said she kept thinking, “How are all of these families going to recover from this trauma? This is going to become intergenerational trauma.”