Welcoming the Stranger

Welcoming the Stranger

Vard Johnson is spending this week at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas as a volunteer lawyer for refugees from Central America. He shares his experience here. Read all his posts here. 

Today, I linked arms with 15 volunteers at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, to aid the hundreds of women and children fleeing violence in Central America.  During the past year at least 50,000 citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have entered the United States illegally, seeking shelter from harm at home.  The American Immigration Lawyers Association, in partnership with Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services, established a pro bono project, known as CARA, to meet detainees at the profit making detention centers scattered throughout Texas and assist sojourners in telling their stories and securing their release on bond.  Until now, the only persons these folk have met in our country are border patrol officers, government deportation officials, and employees at the detention facilities.  From day one, we lawyers, paralegals, and translators are trained to welcome the stranger, to present the loving face, to show that we care, to make clear that we can be trusted with their stories and fears.  While this work is totally secular, one can appreciate that we Christians know we are with Christ at these times.
We meet women who fled with their children from violence at the hands of gangs in their home country - gangs that raped them and treated them as property to be shared, gangs that threatened their children with death if they discouraged their children from joining, gangs that through death threats extorted money from the remittances their husbands were sending from the United States.  We meet women who fled their households with their children in tow because of horrendous family brutality - teeth broken by a drunken husband and cigarette burns inflicted by a jealous partner, and a local police indifferent to a domestic problem.
We meet women whose first language in indigenous - Quichi, Mam, Achi, to name some.  We assess whether their Spanish appears adequate to carry their stories before the Asylum Officers who will decide whether they have a credible fear of returning to their own country.  If not, we make certain that the officer either locates an indigenous language speaker to serve as translator or else releases the detainee on bond.
We inquire of each and every client about their conditions in detention. How are their children faring?  Does anyone have an illness?  What type of treatment is provided?  Are the children in school?  Does the teacher use Spanish? 
And this is only the beginning.  Tomorrow, I will describe the means our clients use to obtain release from detention.


Vard Johnson

Vard Johnson, a member of Old South Church in Boston, is an attorney focusing primarily on immigration law. He is a member of the Conference Board of Directors.

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